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Justice

Volume 732: debated on Tuesday 16 May 2023

The Secretary of State was asked—

Criminal Court Backlogs

1. What recent estimate he has made of the size of the backlog of criminal court cases in Preston constituency. (904934)

The outstanding case load at Preston Crown court stood at 1,454 cases at the end of December 2022. We are taking action across the criminal justice system to bring the caseload down and improve waiting times for those who use our courts. We have ramped up the additional capacity, we have recently announced the continued use of 24 Nightingale courtrooms in this financial year, and we are investing a significant amount of funding in the criminal justice system.

The backlog of court cases means that victims of rape, sexual abuse and violent crime face years of delay in their fight for justice. The emotional burden of the trial and delays have led to victims dropping out of the process and feeling that they would be unwilling to engage again in future. That has happened to a Preston constituent of mine who, after five years, is still waiting for her court case. Does the Secretary of State believe that that is an acceptable state for the British justice system to be in?

I appreciate, and I know that colleagues in the judiciary appreciate, the sensitivities around such cases. They will always do their best to bring vulnerable cases forward so that victims are seen as fast as possible. There can be a variety of reasons why cases are delayed. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to write to me with the specifics of the case, I can try to find out exactly what caused the delays.

The Government are likely to miss their own targets on reducing Crown court backlogs. Wait times for rape and sexual assault cases are at an all-time high. I have two Rotherham families who have been waiting years for access to court for corporate manslaughter cases, and countless victims of sexual abuse who do not know when they will get their day in trial. Thirteen years of erosion of our public services have led us to this point. What exactly will the Minister do to deal with the trauma that victims, survivors and their families in my constituency are facing with such waits? Their lives are on hold. What is he actually going to do today to address that?

Sexual offences are an incredibly sensitive issue, and the hon. Lady is right to raise it. The Department is working with the judiciary to consider specialist support in several courts to ensure that such cases are brought forward in a faster manner. There can be a variety of reasons why cases are delayed. As I said to the hon. Member for Preston (Sir Mark Hendrick), if hon. Members write to me on specific cases, I can find out why they have been delayed. It can be for a variety of reasons and not just because of the general backlog.

We are dealing with the backlog. It was coming down before the Bar strike, which pushed it back up. In the meantime, we have increased the judiciary across all our courts by 10% in the last five years—we have recruited more than 1,000 judges this year and will recruit 1,000 next year—we have taken the cap off sitting days, and we have 24 Nightingale courts still in use. Those are the practical measures that we are taking to increase capacity.

I am not quite sure what to do with that question, Mr Speaker. If my right hon. Friend would like to write to me on the details of that particular court, I will see if there are any lessons we can learn from our Rwandan colleagues.

As part of reducing delays in family courts, we need substantial law reform, so I welcome the Department’s decision to refer financial remedy reform to the Law Commission for a review. The problem is causing dramatic delays, costs and uncertainty for thousands of families across the country. Baroness Deech and I are holding an event in the House of Lords next month with Mr Justice Mostyn and Baroness Shackleton. Will the Ministry of Justice ensure that it is represented at that meeting so that it can listen, learn and ensure that we get some changes?

We appreciate all the issues raised by my hon. Friend, who has been a long-term campaigner on family law. I guarantee that either a senior official or a Minister will attend that meeting.

We have heard the human cost of the Government’s policies, but I have had the pleasure of facing several—four or perhaps five—Justice Ministers across the Dispatch Box who claimed they would sort out the courts backlog. They have all failed. Contrary to what the Minister said, Crown court cases increased by 6% on the previous year in February: up 3,500 to nearly 61,000. Magistrates court cases were up 1,600 to more than 345,000. President of the Law Society Lubna Shuja has said:

“The data cuts through the rhetoric and clearly shows that delays in the criminal justice system aren’t coming down anytime soon.”

What new rhetoric does the Minister have today?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for not asking a question about Common Platform, which makes a refreshing change. On the issue of reducing the backlog, it is not rhetoric—these are facts. The outstanding case load—

Well, if the hon. Gentleman waits until the figures are published at the end of June, he will see that the case load is coming down. I repeat: this is not rhetoric. These are facts. More judges this year, more judges next year, more money in the criminal justice system for legal aid, Nightingale courts, uncapped sitting days—these are practical measures that will improve access to justice.

Well, they are working. The hon. Gentleman will not want to admit it, but if he waits to see the facts when they are published, I hope he will then realise that we are taking tangible action to improve the capacity of our courts.

Don’t forget that Chorley court is still empty—we’ll take the capacity problems that Preston has.

Police Officer Numbers: Impact

2. What recent assessment he has made of the impact of changes in the number of police officers on the criminal justice system in England and Wales. (904935)

Ingeniously done, Mr Speaker.

The successful delivery of the pledge to recruit 20,000 additional police officers is good news for victims, good news for the rule of law and bad news for criminals. It is already contributing to more offences being investigated and charged and more offenders being brought to justice in our courts.

For the past two years, I have had the privilege of attending the Josh Hanson memorial football tournament at the Watford football club training ground. Josh Hanson sadly lost his life at the age of 21 to knife crime. The Josh Hanson Trust, set up by Josh’s mum, Tracey, and her family, provides support for those who have lost loved ones to violent crime, and Tracey’s story is heart-breaking and inspirational in equal measure. What steps will my right hon. and learned Friend take to ensure that victims and their families are supported throughout the criminal justice process and that their voices are heard loudly and acted upon, so that justice can be served?

I am so grateful to my hon. Friend for highlighting the brilliant work of Tracey Hanson and the Josh Hanson Trust, which supports those who have lost loved ones to violent crime. Josh’s death was an appalling tragedy. Improving victims’ experience of the criminal justice system is a core mission of this Government. Our Victims and Prisoners Bill, which had its Second Reading just yesterday, will ensure that the public and victims are better protected and can have greater confidence in the system, placing the principles of the victims code on to the face of the Bill, which will make sure what victims can and should expect from the criminal justice system.

As the Secretary of State just said, the additional police officers will lead to more court cases, but as we heard from the previous exchange, there is a huge backlog, which the Public Accounts Committee has looked at. When our Committee challenged his Department’s officials on this issue, we were not convinced that there has been proper planning for how those additional cases will be managed on top of the existing court backlog. Can he give us any up-to-date reassurance?

I thank the hon. Lady for the important work she does. These are relevant questions. It is important to understand that 90% of all criminal cases take place in the magistrates court, and because of the enormously good work that they did, any meaningful backlogs had been eroded by the end of 2020. She is right in respect of the Crown court—there are pressures—but as has been indicated, we are keeping 24 Nightingale courts open, increasing the amount of judicial recruitment and ensuring that victims are supported through the process. We now have 700 independent sexual violence advisers, which did not exist as little as 13 years ago, to ensure that as people wait for trials to begin, they are properly supported through the system.

NDAs: Sexual Assault, Harassment and Misconduct

3. What discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the use of non-disclosure agreements in sexual assault, harassment and misconduct cases. (904936)

As the Minister for Victims, I am committed to ensuring that victims are supported in seeking justice through the criminal justice system where they choose to do so. I most recently spoke with ministerial colleagues about the use of NDAs in the context of discussions around tackling violence against women and girls.

I thank the Minister for his response, but non-disclosure agreements and gagging clauses are endemic. They are used almost unthinkingly by businesses, political parties and even schools in cases of harassment, bullying and discrimination. They silence victims, prevent them from accessing vital services, and serve only to disempower. In the Victims and Prisoners Bill, we have a golden opportunity to ban them once and for all, so I thank the Minister for his words in yesterday’s debate and his offer of a meeting for Members, but would he consider meeting the victims so that he can hear at first hand the effect that these insidious things have on the victims themselves?

As the hon. Lady will be aware, we have legislated to prevent higher education providers from using NDAs in cases of sexual abuse, harassment or misconduct, or other forms of bullying or harassment. The Government held a thorough consultation on the misuse of NDAs between workers and their employees, and we are planning our next steps carefully. As the hon. Lady alluded to, I listened carefully to her speech yesterday, and in that context agreed to meet with her and other Members. I am always willing to meet with victims, but given the cross-cutting nature of this issue across many Government Departments, it is probably most useful if I meet with her in the first instance and we take things from there.

Illegal Migration Bill: Access to Justice

4. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the potential impact of the Illegal Migration Bill on access to justice. (904937)

14. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the potential impact of the Illegal Migration Bill on access to justice. (904948)

The Illegal Migration Bill will break the business model of ruthless people-smuggling gangs, deter migrants from making dangerous channel crossings, and restore fairness to our asylum system. The Bill provides a robust but fair legal framework to remove illegal migrants swiftly while ensuring the proper opportunity to appeal remains. I am working closely with colleagues on the implementation of the Bill.

Access to justice is a basic human right, and judicial review is a particularly vital safeguard against unlawful state decision making, so why are the Government blocking the opportunities for judicial review in the Illegal Migration Bill? Does that not reflect a Government who are perhaps not so confident about the actual legality of the Bill?

No, absolutely not. Access to justice is at the heart of the Bill, and indeed we make sure that where it is necessary, people can have the legal advice to make those points. But the hon. Gentleman’s question is a little rich in circumstances where the SNP seems hellbent on getting rid of jury trials in some of the most significant cases. We are absolutely clear that juries are the lamp of our liberty. We will not be getting rid of them—why is the hon. Gentleman so keen to do so?

In relation to that answer, as Lord Reed set out clearly in the Supreme Court in 2017, the principle of “unimpeded access” to the courts is a right that can be traced all the way back to Magna Carta. How will the courts be able effectively to uphold the rule of law if the UK Government use legislation to shut off legal avenues for judicial review?

Respectfully, the hon. Gentleman may not have quite read the entirety of the Bill, which makes it clear that in appropriate cases where there is an imminent risk of serious and irreversible harm, there will be the opportunity to make those points. He mentions Magna Carta; Magna Carta also includes the right to be tried by a jury of one’s peers, which he apparently wants to get rid of. I am interested to note that one of the most effective critics of that proposal was none other than the most eminent Scottish jurist Lord Hope of Craighead.

I start by congratulating the new Justice Secretary on his appointment: he has always come across as a measured and principled parliamentarian, and someone who is very serious about the rule of law. But what better way to trash that hard-earned reputation than by penning a joint opinion piece with the Home Secretary in defence of the outrageous Illegal Migration Bill, which blatantly trashes four international rights conventions and which the Law Society itself has warned has serious implications for the UK’s standing as a country that upholds the rule of law? Why is the Justice Secretary defending the Home Secretary instead of the rule of law?

The rule of law is absolutely essential to who we are as a nation. It does mean, on the one hand, that no one should be mightier than the law and we should all be accountable equally before it, but it also means that where there are those who break the law—I pause to note that arriving illegally in the UK has been against the law for decades—there must be consequences. If there are not, the rule of law is brought into disrepute. That would be bad for our country and, indeed, for the international rules-based order.

Bill of Rights Bill

The Human Rights Act 1998 is an essential piece of legislation that protects us all from abuses of power, yet the Bill of Rights Bill proposes to scrap it, weakening human rights protections in UK law and making it harder for people to hold the Government and other public bodies to account. If the Minister will not answer my question about the Bill’s future, can he at least commit to keeping the Human Rights Act on the statute book?

I have already welcomed the Lord Chancellor to his position. He will know that, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is not a legal maxim, but it is still a sound one that may apply in this case. If it were thought necessary to make changes to the human rights regime in this country, perhaps the report of Sir Peter Gross offers a better way forward, but does he also agree that his Department’s important priorities are those that affect people’s day-to-day lives in their interactions with the justice system? Ensuring that we have fully efficient and working court systems and an efficient and human prison system may therefore be higher priorities. Perhaps meeting the Bar Council and the Law Society to iron out the remaining matters from the Bellamy review and ensuring that we have a proper prison workforce strategy, rather than legislating, may therefore be his best priorities—

I welcome the Justice Secretary to his place. Positive obligations are a cornerstone of the Human Rights Act 1998. They mean that the state must protect as well as refrain from restricting our rights. The victims of the black cab rapist John Worboys used these obligations to hold the police to account for failing to properly investigate more than 105 alleged rapes and sexual assaults perpetrated by him. How can this Government be trusted on ending violence against women and girls when the previous Justice Secretary, the right hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Dominic Raab) wanted to rip up that Act and those obligations? Will the new Justice Secretary commit himself to protecting them and the rights they give to victims?

The rights that the hon. Lady refers to derive from the European convention on human rights: the right to life, the privilege against torture and inhumane or degrading treatment, the right to a fair trial, the right to a family life, and so on. Those stand apart from the Human Rights Act, but she is correct to say that they are important rights. The only thing I would take issue with is where she talks about violence against women and girls. It is the Conservative party that made coercive and controlling behaviour a criminal offence—Labour did not. It is this party that made stalking a criminal offence—Labour did not. It is this party that made non-fatal strangulation a stand-alone criminal offence—Labour did not. And it is this party that passed Acts such as the Domestic Abuse Act 2021 and will pass Acts such as the Victims and Prisoners Bill to ensure that victims are properly served.

If the right hon. and learned Gentleman wants to be seen as a Justice Secretary who will stand up for the rule of law and access to justice, he should be putting the greatest possible distance between himself and the dreadful pet project of his predecessor by disowning the Bill of Rights altogether. Importantly, will he stop that Bill being split up and dropped into other pieces of legislation, as we have already seen with the Illegal Migration Bill? Instead of undermining respect for international rights, why does he not work to incorporate more rights into domestic law, such as the UN convention on the rights of the child?

Human rights matter. I refer the hon. Gentleman to the answer I gave a few moments ago. I reiterate this point, because it is important: one of the most vital aspects of access to justice is the right to be tried by a jury of one’s peers. That matters, because it is a bulwark against the power of an overweening state. He should know that. Why is he playing so fast and loose with hard-won Scottish freedoms?

Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation

6. What steps he is taking to bring forward legislative proposals to tackle strategic lawsuits against public participation. (904939)

20. What steps he is taking to bring forward legislative proposals to tackle strategic lawsuits against public participation. (904954)

Sorry, Mr Speaker; I was so excited giving that last answer. SLAPPs involve abusing the legal process to shut down legitimate investigations and criticisms that wealthy individuals might find inconvenient. We will introduce a new statutory definition, an early dismissal process to strike out SLAPP litigation and protections against excessive legal costs. We are looking closely at a number of legislative avenues to pursue that.

For too long, Russian oligarchs have used SLAPPs to attempt to frustrate journalists from exposing their actions. Journalist and author Catherine Belton and her publisher were left with a £1.5 million bill after libel actions were brought against her for her book “Putin’s People”. Will the Minister agree to do as much as possible to prevent this exploitation of the UK courts?

I thank my hon. Friend for making that case so powerfully, and she is right. SLAPPs do represent an abuse of the legal system, as they rely on threatening tactics to silence individuals who act in the public interest. The Government are committed to preventing exploitation of UK courts by legislating against SLAPPs at the earliest opportunity, and we are considering that in legislation already before Parliament.

As the new chair of the all-party parliamentary group on media freedom globally and a former journalist myself, I am very concerned about SLAPPs. The name says it all: they are strategic litigations against public participation. They are abusive lawsuits designed to shut down the exposure of important facts by journalists, among others. I am pleased to hear what the Lord Chancellor has said. Could he give the House a little bit more detail on the potential scope of the legislation, and just reiterate what a difference it will make for the freedom of the press?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right in his use of the word “scope”, because we have to take care with this legislation. There is a balance between speed and ensuring it is sufficiently comprehensive to achieve the policy aim. It is right to note that, if we look around other common law jurisdictions, we see that there are some occasions when such legislation has had unintended consequences that we do not want, so we want to consider that learning carefully. We will proceed carefully but quickly, with all due diligence and expedition, to make sure that it achieves the policy aims.

I warmly welcome the Secretary of State’s answer to the question from the hon. Member for West Bromwich East (Nicola Richards), but how can he introduce fresh challenges for the Department when the backlog is so severe? A visit to Wandsworth prison at Easter with a cross-party group of MPs showed that 75% of prisoners were still waiting for a basic sentence. [Interruption.] While he is reassessing his priorities—and introducing new things such as legislation on SLAPPs—will he reconsider the day job and the bread-and-butter work of getting through the backlog, so that three quarters of prisoners actually get their sentence and victims get justice?

Order. Can I just say that I love the imagination, but we have to be careful not to overstretch these questions. Secretary of State, are you happy to have a go?

I will give it a go, Mr Speaker. The question was ingenious, and I commend the hon. Member for it. Capacity is critically important—absolutely—and I want to stress, because people will be listening to this, that in 90% of the cases that take place in magistrates courts there are not those difficulties. However, it is true that we are expanding capacity, which is why there are more judges and there are 24 Nightingale courts. List officers are ensuring that we are getting through some of these most sensitive cases as quickly as possible, and the backlog in the Crown court—the case load in the Crown court—is coming down. We are seeing progress, and it is going to accelerate.

Getting back to SLAPPs, they are, as the Secretary of State has accepted, closing down public debate and public exposure of corruption. They are also being used against people who work for the enforcement agencies, such as the Serious Fraud Office, where individuals have been targeted. The Secretary of State has said that he intends to legislate, but can he tell us when he is likely to do that, because the Government have been making these noises for a very long time and what we need is action?

Absolutely. The position is that we will do so at the earliest opportunity. As I said before, we are even considering this in legislation before the House at the moment, so I hope that that gives the hon. Member an indication of the urgency. However, the point to note is that it is very easy to say “anti-SLAPPs legislation”, but if we look at other jurisdictions, we see that that can be in the form of costs orders that can have unintended consequences in respect of the law of defamation. I am not suggesting that is any reason not to move quickly—we are going to move quickly—but we have to move quickly and with care. If we do not, we risk undermining the very policy objective we want to deliver.

I will remind the Lord Chancellor that we have debated this matter a number of times in this House over more than the last year, so I do encourage haste. On scope, SLAPPs encourage a lot of other bad practices. For example, we are now the global centre of illegal hacking in this country. We have a very bad record for poorly regulated private investigation, so can he make sure his review covers that as well?

As always, my right hon. Friend absolutely has his finger on the pulse of this important issue. He makes a powerful point, and I can assure him that it is being borne in mind.

Family Court Experts: Psychologists

7. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care on the regulation of psychologists appointed as experts in family courts. (904940)

The use of expert evidence is a matter for the independent judiciary, with parameters set in legislation. If the expert’s area is regulated, they must be in possession of a current licence to practice or provide an equivalent to the court. If it is not regulated, they must demonstrate appropriate qualifications or regulation by a relevant professional body. I can confirm that officials from the Ministry of Justice and the Department of Health and Social Care are in discussion on taking this further.

The continued reliance on self-declared experts to provide evidence in family courts is placing thousands of children and vulnerable women at risk, with allegations of parental alienation closely linked to cases of domestic abuse and coercive control. I have heard at first hand from constituents just how dangerous this can be. Professional associations and international bodies, including the United Nations, have also highlighted the failings of the current system. Will the Minister take action to protect vulnerable women and children, and finally commit to a full inquiry into the use of parental alienation in family courts, alongside more regulation and accreditation standards for those invited to give specialist testimony?

I reiterate that it is a matter for the judiciary to question the bona fides of an expert: if they do not believe an expert seeking to give evidence in court is of the required standard, the judiciary can reject them. On taking further steps, the rights of the child are paramount, which is why we are looking forward to discussions to see how we can tighten up the role of experts. Equally, the Government are confident that the family justice system can robustly address this issue already. If there is more work to be done once we have been able to see the evidence, we will do it, but I am not proposing that we rush into a further review at this stage.

Family courts across the country are being used to perpetuate domestic abuse, and when that abuse proves fatal, which we know it too often does, the family courts allow it to be continued against the victim’s family. Currently, the parents of a woman who was killed by her husband would have to be cross-examined by that same murderer to adopt their orphaned grandchildren. This is a system that is stacked in favour of the killer. Do the Government agree that this practice is abhorrent and support Labour’s calls to implement Jade’s law in the Victims and Prisoners Bill?

I refer the hon. Lady to my colleague the victims Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar), because I believe he has already met the right hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami) to see how the issues raised by Jade’s law can be implemented. [Interruption.] As I have said, my colleague has met the proponent of Jade’s law to see how those issues can be progressed further.

Grandparents: Statutory Right to Access

8. If he will make an assessment of the potential merits of giving grandchildren a statutory right to access their grandparents following a divorce or bereavement. (904942)

We recognise that grandparents often play an important role in children’s lives and can provide stability in families following divorce or bereavement. However, when making any decision about a child’s upbringing the court’s paramount consideration must be the welfare of the child based on the individual facts of the case, and given the importance of considering each case on its individual merits neither adults nor children have a statutory right of access.

I thank the Minister for his answer but we know that the bond with a grandparent can be one of the most precious relationships in a child’s life, yet so often in the adult wars of family breakdown children are a weapon and actions by grandparents through the family court are often incredibly expensive and frequently fruitless. What more can the Department do to give grandchildren that right to see their grandparents, and is it not about time we followed the example of Scotland, which has an older persons Minister, and Northern Ireland and Wales, which have older persons commissioners, to take up such issues?

My hon. Friend might want to take up the question of an older persons commissioner with the Prime Minister because I suspect that is well above my pay grade. On access for grandparents, I will double-check this but am pretty sure that we recently extended the ability to get legal aid to special guardianship orders, which may well be accessible for grandparents to secure rights of access.

Trial Processes: Efficiency and Economy

9. What assessment he has made of the potential for improvements in the efficiency and economy of trial processes. (904943)

We are committed to working closely with the judiciary and other partners to improve the efficiency of the criminal courts and family courts, and this includes the judicial-led cross-system Crown court improvement group, which improves ways of working with the Crown court. But across the whole system we are looking at increasing digitisation so that the cost of access to justice is also reduced, and that is an addition to all the measures mentioned in response to other questions to ensure the capacity of our system is robust.

I thank the Minister for those examples. Does he agree that those reductions in the costs, delays and complexity of resolving disputes and enforcing the law are good not just for victims and plaintiffs but for consumers and taxpayers, and are also examples of how red tape can be cut without compromising the quality of British justice? So will he keep going on this crusade, and perhaps persuade other Government Departments to apply the same energy and rigour in their portfolios?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. For instance, for online civil money claims the times for issuing, responding and hearing dates are down to 9.4 days from 25 days, while damages claims are down from 11.4 days to one day and financial remedy consent orders are down to four weeks rather than many months, all making access to justice faster, more efficient and cheaper for those who need it.

On 1 May, my constituent Johanita Dogbey was brutally murdered on Stockwell Park Walk in my constituency, an area that I have walked past many times. She was 31 years old. Yesterday, as I held her mother, trying to console her, she asked me why her family have to wait for over a year to get justice. The Minister outlined improving the courts system and efficiency. Does he agree that every day that my constituents have to wait is a sentence for them and that it is about not just the economic cost but the human cost in bringing forward cases so that our victims get the justice they deserve?

The hon. Lady is quite right to raise that point. The Department and the judiciary appreciate the sensitivity of such cases to ensure that the families of victims—and the victims, if they are still with us—do get their day in court so that they can see justice done as fast as possible. There can be a variety of reasons why cases are delayed. It could be about the availability of counsel, prosecutors or experts—or, in some cases, the availability of multiple defendants. I do not know the details of that case apart from it being listed for, I believe, the spring—

Spring 2024. If the hon. Lady would like to write with the details of the case, I can find out if there are specific reasons why it has been delayed. As I say, there can be a variety of reasons for that, and I am quite happy to get the details for her.

Retained EU Law: Acts of the Scottish Parliament

10. Whether he has had recent discussions with the Scottish Government on the potential effect of provisions in the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill on EU law incorporated in Acts of the Scottish Parliament. (904944)

16. Whether he has had recent discussions with the Scottish Government on the potential effect of provisions in the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill on EU law incorporated in Acts of the Scottish Parliament. (904950)

The Ministry of Justice has been working closely with the Scottish Government and other devolved Administrations to consider the implications of the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill for retained EU law in justice policy areas across the UK. My officials have regular discussions with their devolved Administration counterparts to ensure that proposals to revoke or reform retained EU law are carefully considered to avoid any unintended divergence across the UK.

I wonder whether the Minister agrees with Unison the trade union, which has warned that

“encroaching upon devolved areas, to actively make lives worse for working people will damage the democratic legitimacy of the Westminster Parliament in the eyes of people in devolved nations.”

With regard to this specific Bill, given the announcement last week, I do not believe that there is any infringement on the Scottish competency.

The Bill restricts Scotland’s Lord Advocate’s reference and intervention powers to devolved Scottish legislation. However, there is no corresponding restriction on English law officers to limit them to reserved matters. Does the Minister feel it is right that English law officers would be able to refer Scottish legislation to the courts in that manner, or does he agree with the Law Society of Scotland that that should be left to Scottish law officers?

I will have to look carefully at the references that the hon. Lady has made, but, as far as I am aware, the items of retained EU law in the Ministry of Justice’s remit that are intended to be revoked under the new schedule are all spent measures, and there will be no impact on Scotland.

Alcohol and Drug-related Crime

17. What steps his Department is taking through the criminal justice system to tackle alcohol and drug related crime. (904951)

Offenders who get off drugs are some 19% less likely to slip back into a life of crime, so the Ministry of Justice is investing strongly across security, testing, treatment and continuity of care.

Does my right hon. Friend appreciate that there is a clear correlation between criminal offences involving drugs and alcohol and the prevalence of antisocial behaviour, particularly in and around our town centres? What is being done to ensure that persistent offenders of drink and drug-fuelled antisocial behaviour are not only prosecuted but receive tougher custodial sentences to keep them off the streets so that people feel safer in our communities?

I certainly appreciate the link that my hon. Friend mentions. The MOJ has worked closely with the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities and the Home Office on the antisocial behaviour plan, which includes funding to use out-of-court disposal conditions in 10 police and crime commissioner areas to deliver immediate justice. The probation service will pilot new rapid deployment teams of offenders serving community sentences to clean up and repair more serious incidences of antisocial behaviour as quickly as possible.

Protection of Children: Family Courts

We have introduced a number of measures to improve the experience of victims of domestic abuse and their children following the final report of the expert panel on harm in the family courts. We will shortly publish an update setting out progress made since the report’s publication. That includes establishing new pathfinder pilots in Dorset and north Wales to trial a more investigative approach to private family law cases and bolster the voice of the child in proceedings. We are consulting on further measures to spare children from involvement in courtroom battles by supporting the early resolution of private law disputes.

I am grateful to the Minister for that response. Jack and Paul were murdered by their father after it was ruled that it was in their interests to maintain contact with him. The presumption for parental involvement in cases of domestic abuse can have fatal consequences, which is partly why it is under review. However, that review was meant to publish two years ago. Children’s lives depend on it, so will the Minister confirm when the findings will be published?

As the hon. Gentleman says, work is under way. The review has to be carefully considered, because of the complexities of parental involvement, to ensure that the rights of the child are protected. It is an important and complex issue, and we want to ensure it is based on a solid understanding of the ways the presumption is currently applied and how it affects both parents and children. I have asked that we get a stronger date for the review to be published. I will write to him shortly, once I have a date.

Extended Family Guardianship: Legal Aid

19. Whether the Government are taking steps to ensure that legal aid is available for extended family members who are seeking guardianship of vulnerable children. (904953)

We laid a family statutory instrument in February this year which, among other things, brings special guardianship orders in private law proceedings into the scope of legal aid, injecting a further £5.6 million a year into the system. A special guardianship order can place a child in the care of someone other than their birth parents. That can include family members, including grandparents, and close family friends.

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for that answer. The Government’s announcement, which he outlined, of an additional £5.6 million for legal aid to support family members seeking guardianship of vulnerable children is extremely welcome. I would be grateful if he considered whether that could be part of a wider review of the rights of family members, specifically grandparents who are very often best placed to provide a loving home, care and support.

The rights of grandparents have risen up the agenda considerably over the last few years. Both colleagues who have spoken on this issue today, including my hon. Friend, make some valid points. I will give a commitment to discuss it with my colleague Lord Bellamy, who leads on this area, to see what further work we can do.

These are not my words on the cuts to legal aid, but the words of the new Lord Chancellor:

“There is now a serious concern that, without some steps to restore a measure of access to justice, serious injustice will inevitably follow.”

Will the Minister heed the words of his new boss and reverse the devastating cuts to legal aid that his party has inflicted over the last decade?

I think, actually, that it was the Labour party who said that it was going to

“derail the gravy train of legal aid”.

This Government have continued to fund legal aid, with £1.2 billion on criminal and £813 million on civil. In the last few months, we have injected nearly £30 million into the civil part and some £13 million of that is legal aid for special guardianship orders, so I simply do not accept the premise that we are underfunding or cutting legal aid. In fact, we are investing in it. The hon. Gentleman touched on access to civil, family and tribunals. On family, we increased the budget for the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service by £8.4 million to £141 million. We are recruiting more judges across the system. That includes more fee-paid judges who can work in this area. That includes a virtual regional pilot to support London and the south-east, so that access to justice is faster. That includes £7.5 million for a family mediation scheme, helping 17,000 families get the access to justice they need. Any attempt to suggest we are not investing in the justice system is simply false.

Domestic Abuse Victims: Courts

As the Victims Minister I am committed to supporting all victims to pursue an outcome in the criminal justice system and bring perpetrators to justice. That is why we are more than quadrupling funding for victims and witness support services by 2024-25, and are recruiting to increase the number of independent sexual violence advisers and independent domestic violence advisers by 300—to more than 1,000—by the same time. Through the groundbreaking Domestic Abuse Act 2021, we have introduced important new protections and support for victims of domestic abuse at court.

It is important to remember that anyone can be a victim of domestic violence, including men. My constituents have raised this issue with me; will the Minister do all he can to reassure them and me that men, too, will be supported through the justice system?

My hon. Friend is right to highlight that men can be victims of domestic abuse and domestic violence. All victim survivors deserve access to timely and appropriate support. The updated controlling or coercive behaviour statutory guidance 2022 signposts specialist organisations that support men and boys who are victims of domestic abuse, alongside non-gendered services. Among the specialist organisations that we fund as a Government are ManKind and Dads Unlimited. The Home Office also supports the Men’s Advice Line, run by Respect.

Employment Advisory Boards

Employment advisory boards, chaired by business leaders across the country, do hugely important work to foster links between prisons and employers. I was delighted to attend the EAB conference just last week. Having a job reduces the reoffending rate by up to nine percentage points. That is good for society and for the offenders who turn their lives around. That is why we have rolled out boards to 92 resettlement prisons ahead of schedule.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s response. I recently visited HMP Swaleside, where I witnessed good work done by the excellent employment advisory board, including the setting up of the internal distribution centre run by prisoners and supplies prisons across the estate. I am sure that members of the employment advisory board, the governor, prison staff and prisoners themselves would get a big lift if the Prisons Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds), would find time in his busy schedule to visit the Isle of Sheppey and see for himself this fantastic initiative.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that issue. I know the prison that he speaks of. He is right to highlight the brilliant work of Paul Barrett of Barretts Motor Group, who is bringing that work to HMP Swaleside. Thanks to his hard work we are seeing a dramatic improvement in the percentage of prisoners in employment six months after release—it is up 9% in just a year. When the latest figures come out, I think my hon. Friend will see an even greater increase. That really matters. My right hon. Friend the Prisons Minister is already planning a trip to the Isle of Sheppey to see those initiatives in action.

UN Convention against Torture: Compliance

23. Whether he has received recent representations on compliance with the United Nations convention against torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. (904958)

The Government have received a pre-reporting list of issues from the UN Committee against Torture, as is routine. We are finalising our response.

Article 3 of the 1984 UN convention against torture and other cruel, unhuman or degrading treatment or punishment sets out the grounds on which a state should judge all risks of mistreatment in considering extradition. Will the Minister clarify whether the UK Government give due consideration to those provisions? Specifically, what consideration is the UK giving to providing a right of safe passage for those fleeing Sudan and South Sudan with family members in the UK? Will the Minister set out what safe, open and legal routes are available to those people?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question, though I know that you would not want me to stray too far into matters that are for other Government Departments, Mr Speaker. The UK has carried out by far the longest and largest evacuation of any western country from Sudan, bringing 2,450 people to safety. Preventing a humanitarian emergency in Sudan is our top focus. Alongside the evacuation effort, we are working with international partners and the United Nations to bring an end to the fighting.

Topical Questions

I am delighted to have been appointed Justice Secretary and Lord Chancellor. The rule of law, access to justice and the independence of the judiciary are the bedrock of a safe, free and fair society. It is an honour to continue this Government’s work to deliver a justice system that puts victims of crime first and ensures fairness for all.

Since my appointment I have taken the Victims and Prisoners Bill through its Second Reading, just yesterday. It is an important Bill that will improve the service that victims receive and strengthen our parole system. I have announced the introduction of 13,000 body-worn cameras to help keep our prisons safe and secure. I was pleased to meet the dedicated staff at HMP Isis, who work tirelessly to provide a safe and rehabilitative environment. I have also had introductory meetings with the legal sector, and look forward to engaging more with our excellent legal professionals in the weeks and months ahead.

May I welcome my right hon. and learned Friend the Justice Secretary to his rightful place?

In welcoming the measures designed to protect children in the Government’s Online Safety Bill, will my right hon. and learned Friend outline what further action his Department is taking in relation to the criminal justice system to improve prosecution rates for serious offences involving minors, particularly in relation to sex offenders who target young people online?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this point. The Government have invested significantly in new capabilities for law enforcement, including our specially trained network of undercover online officers, to arrest offenders committing online child sexual abuse. Co-ordinated National Crime Agency and policing activity against those offenders is currently resulting in over 800 arrests per month, and we have also delivered a further £4.5 million for organisations supporting victims and survivors of child sexual abuse.

I am delighted to welcome the Secretary of State to his place for the second day running. I have been reading his speeches with interest. He once said the Conservatives should

“do away with the argument that…we are somehow soft on crime.”—[Official Report, 2 July 2018; Vol. 644, c. 90.]

Is it not “soft” to tell judges that they cannot lock up dangerous criminals?

Let us just get a few things absolutely clear. We believe in criminals spending longer in custody. It is strange that when there was the opportunity to vote for rapists and serious violent criminals to spend two thirds of their sentence in custody, the hon. Gentleman voted against that. Indeed, I happen to remember, from when I was at the Bar, that his party did exactly the same in the Criminal Justice Act 2003. Whereas previously, people serving sentences over four years would serve two thirds of their sentence in custody, they cut it to half: soft on crime, soft on the causes of crime.

I am wondering whether the Secretary of State’s handover was a little rushed, because his predecessor wrote to judges and told them not to lock up dangerous criminals, because the Government have run out of prison places. That sounds soft to me, because it tells criminals they can get away with crime. Will he withdraw the letter and tell judges to lock up criminals who deserve to be behind bars?

Well, criminals do deserve to be behind bars, which is why I am proud of the fact that when it comes to rape, which is an appalling crime that robs innocence and destroys lives, we have ensured that criminals convicted of that offence get prison sentences a third longer than they did in 2010. I am pleased to be able to record that the numbers convicted of that appalling offence, in the last 12 months for which figures are available, are 10% higher than under the Labour Government.

T4.   I have raised before in the House the case of Sharlotte-Sky, a six-year-old girl who tragically lost her life in Norton Green when her killer was driving his vehicle while speeding and on his phone, and with drink and drugs in his system. It took Sharlotte’s mother, Claire, over a year to get her justice because the perpetrator refused to give consent to his blood samples being tested until the very last minute. Will my right hon. and learned Friend support my campaign for Sharlotte’s law, which would reform section 7A of the Road Traffic Act 1988 to take away the need for consent when death has occurred because of a motor vehicle? (904962)

I express my sincere condolences and deep sorrow to the family of my hon. Friend’s young constituent. As he knows, the provisions in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 fulfilled our long-standing commitment to increase the maximum penalty from 14 years to life imprisonment for the offence of causing death by dangerous driving. The Department for Transport is considering the publication of a call for evidence on motoring offences. While work is continuing as to its precise scope and timing, it is expected to include aspects of drink and drug driving and the failure to stop and report, with the opportunity to raise other matters. I encourage my hon. Friend to write to me and the Secretary of State for Transport, and I would be happy to discuss these matters further.

T2. I welcome the Justice Secretary to his place. Does his agree with the former Prime Minister John Major, who recently said that “many short sentences are pointless and that a non-custodial sentence would be more effective and, perhaps, more fair”? (904960)

It is absolutely right that the judiciary, who I respect enormously, do justice on the facts before them. If they feel they can do justice and provide a remedy for the crime that has been committed against society through an unpaid work order, some sort of community disposal or a suspended sentence order, that is a matter for them. The volume of unpaid work orders has gone up, and we are very keen to ensure that the rehabilitation or the unpaid work takes place as close as possible to the community that has been offended against, so that if there has been criminal damage or shoplifting, individuals should pay back their debt to the very society that they betrayed. That is what we would invite courts, in the exercise of their independent discretion, to do.

T6.   How many probate cases are awaiting a decision for seven weeks or more, and what is the Minister doing to speed up the decision-making process? (904964)

The number is roughly 9,135, which is about 15% of the backlog. The cases for which all the documentation has been received will take six to eight weeks to complete. We have recruited 100 additional members of staff to ensure that we can clear the more complex cases, as we realise that the issuing of probate is important.

T5. According to figures from the Ministry of Justice, the number of theft and burglary cases prosecuted in a Crown court by West Mercia police that have been awaiting completion for one to two years increased more than threefold between the first quarter of 2020 and the first quarter of 2022. Can the Minister provide more up-to-date data on those backlogs, and tell us what steps he is taking to ensure that the victims of such crimes in North Shropshire see justice within a reasonable timescale? (904963)

As we have said in earlier answers, we are trying to ensure that the outstanding caseload continues to diminish by continuing to increase the judiciary. There will be 1,000 more judges this year and next, we are increasing court capacity—there is now no cap on the number of sitting days—and there are also the 24 Nightingale courts. All this will make a tangible difference to the capacity of the court system, which means that the cases in the hon. Lady’s constituency can be heard more quickly.

T10.   What plans does my right hon. Friend have to use prisoners to help to fill labour shortages, and what assessment has he made of the extent to which that may drive down reoffending rates and help to improve the employability of prison leavers? (904968)

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State explained earlier, getting offenders and ex-offenders into work has a material impact on the odds against their returning to a life of crime. There is a fantastic opportunity to maximise that because of the tightness of the labour market. My hon. Friend is right about the need to match local skills needs, and the employment advisory boards are there to ensure that that happens.

T8. Does the Secretary of State agree with the assessment of the House of Lords Constitution Committee, which has warned that it is not appropriate for courts other than the Supreme Court and the Scottish High Court of Justiciary to have power to depart from the interpretations of EU case law, and that allowing lower courts to reinterpret EU case law risks causing significant legal uncertainty? (904966)

Two Chelmsford GCSE students, Louis and Mason, have been engaged in a citizenship project on our justice system and reducing reoffending rates. Given that we know employment can help to reduce reoffending, what progress is being made on helping offenders and ex-offenders into work?

My right hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds), the Prisons Minister, has talked about this a little. It is very important for people within jails to be given the chance to connect with the opportunities outside. I recently visited HMP Berwyn, which has an employment hub that allows individuals to receive not just career support but, potentially, the interview that they need with an employer on the outside via digital connectivity. I know that my right hon. Friend does excellent work in her local prison, HMP Chelmsford, which is improving greatly following a difficult period, and is now coming out on the other side. We remain committed to ensuring that defendants can get into employment to turn their lives around, but also to repay their debt to society in becoming contributing members of it.

T9. The Sex Matters petition on clarifying the Equality Act 2010 to make sex a biological definition of a protected characteristic is due to be debated in Westminster Hall shortly. What preparations are being made to clarify and strengthen all protected characteristics, and to ensure that freedom of speech is protected as well? (904967)

I think that any such review and analysis would be led by the Government Equalities Office, but I can of course speak with reference to the prison system. On the particular issue of transgender prisoners on the women’s prison estate in England and Wales, our approach is that transgender women can be held on the main women’s estate only if risk-assessed to be safe. That is part of the reason why more than 90% of transgender women in custody in England and Wales have been held on the men's estate, compared with only 50% in Scotland. The further changes in our policy strengthen the position, meaning that no transgender woman convicted of a sexual or violent offence and retaining male genitalia can be assigned to the general women’s estate other than in truly exceptional circumstances, with ministerial sign-off.

A few weeks ago, I visited Poundland at Sailmakers shopping centre in Ipswich, as well as the Military Unit shop and Essential Vintage. All those businesses are at their wits’ end with repeated thieving in their shops, to the point that one of them has temporarily shut its doors. Does the Lord Chancellor agree that the criminal justice system needs to be far harder on those who are repeatedly caught shoplifting? It is debilitating for a town centre, and we should not let cultural sensitivities get in the way.

My hon. Friend is right. Crime is crime, and cultural sensitivities should play no part in the police’s enthusiasm for cracking down on it. I am pleased that 20,000 police officers have been recruited, fulfilling the Government’s manifesto commitment. That means that there are more officers on the street not just deterring crime, but ensuring that arrests can be made and people can be brought to justice.

I realise that the Secretary of State has only recently been appointed, and I welcome him to his place. Does he have any plans to undertake an assessment of the functioning of the law on joint enterprise?

The law on joint enterprise is a sensitive issue. I happen to know that it can be a very important prosecutorial tool to ensure that those who have helped in or encouraged the commission of a serious offence can be brought to justice. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Court of Appeal considered very carefully the scope of the law of joint enterprise to ensure that it catches only people who are truly culpable. There are currently no plans to reform the law, but I will of course consider that sensitive matter if he wishes to raise it with me. I would be happy to have that conversation.

I have said on several occasions in this place that prison officers are the hidden heroes of our public services. Twenty-two came out of hiding and were in plain view during the coronation, when they lined the route of the parade. Will my right hon. and learned Friend join me in congratulating them and welcoming that recognition, which raises the profile of an excellent career? I happen to know that HMP Aylesbury is recruiting.

My hon. Friend is an excellent recruiting sergeant for HMP Aylesbury. He is right: I was recently at HMP Isis and spoke to some young band 3 and 4 prison officers. They are remarkable people who do a difficult job and have to show that precious quality of judgment, which is needed in a prison and elsewhere, on when they need to intervene robustly and when they need to show sensitivity. I am proud that we have invested heavily, through a £100 million scheme, to ensure that every prison officer has body-worn video. Those officers told me how that dials down potentially volatile situations and ensures that, on those rare occasions when violence happens, those individuals who make bad decisions can be held properly to account.

When the Secretary of State holds discussions with Cabinet colleagues on the Illegal Migration Bill, will he ensure that the public perception that there is a massive distinction between people who flee persecution and oppression and arrive in this country to a welcome, and those who leave countries with no oppression and arrive here illegally, remains the case?

That is at the heart of the matter. This is a humane, decent and fair country. We have shown that through our track record and will continue to do so. Since 2015, this nation has opened its doors to 500,000 people fleeing persecution, from Syria, Afghanistan and Hong Kong. They are in all our communities across the United Kingdom and we are proud to welcome them. However, if we want to ensure that that humane instinct is not undermined or somehow brought into disrepute, we have to be fair. That means ensuring that those who traffic people, or those who arrive illegally and try to jump the queue, do not do so without consequence.

Can the Minister say what the Department is doing to support armed forces veterans in the criminal justice system?

We are doing a huge amount, actually. Some of it is to do with what happens in custody. I have been to some prisons that have veterans’ wings, and it is really moving to see, with a lot of the artwork including regimental cap badges and other insignia. That is an important aspect, but critically the chances of people going straight on leaving custody are influenced by three things: whether they have a home, whether they have a job and whether any mental health or drug issues have been addressed. One of the things I am most proud of is that we have rolled out a pilot scheme to ensure that those who leave have a guaranteed 12 weeks of accommodation, so that they can start to rebuild relationships and get into the kind of employment that will help them. That is useful for all offenders, but particularly for armed service personnel, who I know want to go straight and do the right thing.

I recently wrote to the Secretary of State’s predecessor about what his Department calls the “temporary release failure” from Her Majesty’s Prison Sudbury, as it was at the time, of the known criminal Dean Woods, which is on the public record and is of grave concern not only to the Prison Service in England but to some of my constituents, given what he was convicted of and what he is accused of by police forces across Europe. Since last year, has the Department done anything to make sure that Mr Woods is returned not to a category D prison but to a category B prison, and to ensure that it works with colleagues across the rest of Europe to make sure that, if he is to be sent to prison for other possible actions, it happens as quickly as possible?