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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 735: debated on Tuesday 27 June 2023


The Secretary of State was asked—

Prison Overcrowding

1. Whether he plans to meet the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales to discuss overcrowding in prisons. (905631)

I regularly meet the senior judiciary, including the Lord Chief Justice, to discuss priority issues across the justice system, including prisons. We are delivering 20,000 additional modern prison places, the largest prison build programme since the Victorian era, ensuring the right conditions are in place to rehabilitate prisoners, cut crime and protect the public. We have already delivered 5,200 of these places, including at the brand new HMP Fosse Way, which opened last month and which I look forward to visiting later this week.

The Secretary of State, for whom I have great respect, surely knows that there is enormous unhappiness in the prison estate. Recent polls show how low morale is and how many people working in our prisons doing that difficult job are fearful for their safety. Will he meet me and perhaps even the Chair of the Justice Committee, the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill), to talk about how we can find a way forward for the young people—there are perhaps 1,000 of them—in prison under joint enterprise? That would help him with prison overcrowding and bring justice to so many young lives.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman and will be happy to meet him to discuss that. I am glad that he paid tribute to prison officers, who do spectacularly important work. One thing I am proud of delivering is body-worn video cameras for all of them, because that is so important for de-escalating volatile situations and potentially gathering evidence so that they can see justice done.

Joint enterprise is a sensitive issue. I know that the hon. Gentleman takes a proper interest in it, but it is the legal doctrine that ensures that the getaway driver does not avoid culpability, that the lookout of the armed robbery is also culpable, and that the person who supplies the murder weapon, knowing that it will be used in that offence, also cannot escape liability. The Court of Appeal has considered this at some length in the case of Jogee, and we have to be very careful before seeking to recalibrate it. However, I am happy to discuss it with the hon. Gentleman at a time of his choosing.

I am sure that the Lord Chancellor, as well as thanking the current Lord Chief Justice for his work, will welcome the appointment of Dame Sue Carr as the first woman Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales and look forward to working with her, too. Does the Lord Chancellor agree that one of the real areas of concern and pressure on prisons is the growth in the remand population? In January, before he was appointed to office, the Justice Committee produced a report on remand, from which some recommendations were accepted and some were not. Will he revisit some of those recommendations and see what more we can do to bear down in particular on the growth in remand for people who after all have not yet been convicted?

Those are excellent points. Let me begin by joining my hon. Friend in welcoming Dame Sue Carr, whose appointment has been hugely welcomed across the political spectrum, across the legal sector and beyond. I also pay tribute to Lord Burnett. I think I speak on behalf of everyone in the House in saying that there is nothing but regard and respect for the contribution that he has made.

On remand, my hon. Friend is absolutely correct. It is worth reflecting that, compared with the pre-pandemic period, there are between 4,500 and 5,000 more of those people in custody. As he rightly pointed out, they have not been convicted of any crime. Technology, such as electronically monitored tags, can be of assistance. It is for the bench or the Crown Court judge to decide whether there are reasonable grounds to believe that, if released on bail, that person would commit further offences or fail to surrender, but I know that the courts will want to bear the technological options in mind.

Over the past 10 years, more than 3,000 prison places have closed and community sentences have halved, and the three new prisons planned will not open before 2027 at the earliest. No wonder we have a prison capacity crisis, with the Government having to commandeer police cells and judges being told to jail fewer people. How can the public have faith that they will be protected and that crime will be punished when that is the Government’s record?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady. It is worth reflecting that the second biggest programme in Government after High Speed 2 is in prison building. I invite her to go and look at Five Wells or Fosse Way, or at the work taking place at Millsike. Those are modern, safe, rehabilitative, productive prisons. We make no apology for investing in our prison estate because, if we can bear down on the things that prevent individuals from getting back on the right side and putting crime behind them, that is good for society, good for the individual and good for the taxpayer.

Order. We are 10 minutes in and still on question 1. I want to make sure that we get everyone in.

Legal Aid Means Test Review: Domestic Abuse Victims

2. What assessment he has made of the potential impact of the legal aid means test review on access to legal aid for victims of domestic abuse. (905632)

We are determined to ensure that domestic abuse victims secure access to justice and the protection of the law. The changes we are making to the legal aid means test mean that more than 2 million more people in England and Wales will be eligible for civil legal aid each year. Domestic abuse victims in receipt of universal credit will not be means-tested when applying for protective orders, effectively fast-tracking access to legal support and the protection of the courts.

I welcome the new policy, which means that domestic abuse victims who cannot access joint assets controlled by their abuser will no longer have those disputed assets counted towards their eligibility for legal aid. Does the Lord Chancellor agree that this will help to secure access to justice for survivors when their abusers try to continue to control them after they have split?

I agree wholeheartedly. My hon. Friend puts it well. Disputed assets such as the family home are by their nature illiquid and inaccessible. Worse still, they may be controlled by the abuser. By ensuring that those assets are not taken into account when deciding whether to grant legal aid, we are helping to ensure that victims of DA can access that vital legal support and, with it, the essential protection of the courts.

Extending legal aid eligibility to 2 million extra people is great, but eligibility is not the same as access to legal aid services, which have been collapsing in the last 18 months. We have seen a 20% reduction in housing legal aid providers, 21% less mental health support, 27% less welfare support and 30% less immigration and asylum support. There is a crisis in access to fair justice. What is the Secretary of State doing about that?

I am delighted to say that we are expanding access to legal aid to more than 6 million more people in total. Let me pay tribute to legal aid lawyers, who have an exceptionally important role in ensuring that individuals have access to justice. What we will not do on the Government Benches is demonise legal aid lawyers. I was in practice as a legal aid lawyer. Charlie Falconer has admitted that he regrets that the Labour Government demonised “fat cat” lawyers. It was not true then, and it is not true now. We will support legal aid lawyers.

Rape Charge Rates

Through the rape review, we are making strong progress in our ambitions to increase the number of referrals to the Crown Prosecution Service, CPS charges and Crown court receipts for adult rape cases back to 2016 levels. Incidentally, 2016 levels are ambitious, given convictions in that year were 30% higher than in 2010. According to the latest quarter of data, we are on track not just to meet but to beat each ambition. Adult rape prosecutions continue to rise, up 44% in the last year, meaning that more people are being put on trial for this devastating crime than in 2010. There is further to go, but it is important and welcome progress.

Is it any wonder that women do not come forward when they have been raped? Not only is there a 1% chance of the perpetrator being charged, but women have to wait nearly three years for a result. Recent figures from Rape Crisis show that victims and survivors of rape and other serious sexual offences wait the longest to have their experiences heard in court, with an average wait of 839 days from report to completion in court. The delays are having a devastating impact on victims and survivors, leading to deteriorating mental health and wellbeing and survivors attempting to end their life as a result. The Government have given up on protecting women and girls, have they not?

I regret that language. As a matter of fact, convictions are at or around the 2010 level. If the hon. Gentleman wants to suggest that rape was decriminalised in 2010, he is welcome to, but it is completely untrue. The number of prosecutions is higher this year than it was in 2010. Of course we must continue to invest in supporting victims—that is why we have 800 independent sexual violence advisers to accompany those victims on what can be a difficult and traumatic journey. How many were there in 2010? There were a handful.

There were 580 rapes recorded by Gwent police for the year ending March 2022. Given that, as we have heard, across England and Wales only 1.3% of rape cases result in a charge, will the Secretary of State tell me how many Gwent cases resulted in a successful prosecution and what is being done to increase prosecution rates?

The statistic that the hon. Lady just cited is completely wrong. Let me make a couple of points. The number of rape convictions is at or around the level it was in 2010. The number of cases passed by the police to the CPS for charge is up 130%. The number of cases charged is up more than 90%. The number of cases received in the Crown court is up more than 120%. Of course there is more to do. Of course work needs to take place, but the system is recovering very well. People are getting justice and those rapists are being convicted, punished and disgraced. Finally, the sentences they receive are around a third longer than the sentence they received in 2010. That is just deserts for wicked rapists.

My right hon. and learned Friend is absolutely right that support for victims has been essential in increasing the number of cases taken to court. As he said, the numbers have risen significantly in the last 12 months. Could he outline what more he is doing to speed up the time taken to get a case to court, because that time waiting can leave victims not only distressed but potentially walking away from a case that would otherwise come to court?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to make those balanced and fair observations. To try to assist victims, there are a few really important things. Rolling out section 28s ensures that individuals can get their account recorded on tape; that is done whatever then happens in the court process. The independent sexual violence advisers and the independent domestic violence advisers, whom I have talked about, make an enormous difference. Through the victims code, we want to ensure that individuals get the support they need from victims’ services, have the opportunity to go on court familiarisation visits, make victim personal statements and are kept updated by the officer on the case as it proceeds. All those things are critical to ensuring that victims are not spectators of the criminal justice system, but participants in it.

The section 28 achieving best evidence video interviews to which my right hon. and learned Friend refers are there to support vulnerable witnesses and to help to secure not only a charge but a conviction. However, yesterday, during a Justice Committee evidence session, we heard from senior King’s Counsel that there were incidents where such cases were being de-prioritised because of the backlog in the criminal courts, on the basis that in essence the evidence-in-chief had already been taken. Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware of that issue? If not, will he look into it further and report back to the Committee?

I am grateful to my hon. and learned Friend for raising that important point. As he knows, listing—prioritisation; which case gets called first—is a matter for the independent judiciary, but he raises important issues. I would be happy to look at them and to discuss them with him, if appropriate, in due course.

Prisoner Transfers: Albania

4. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of arrangements on prisoner transfers agreed with Albania. (905634)

7. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of arrangements on prisoner transfers agreed with Albania. (905637)

22. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of arrangements on prisoner transfers agreed with Albania. (905654)

Our prisoner transfer agreement with Albania came into force in May 2022. Between January 2021 and December 2022, 1,441 Albanian foreign national offenders were returned to their home country from custody and the community. To build on that, we announced a new arrangement with the Albanian Government in May 2023 to speed up prisoner transfers, with an additional 200 of the most serious offenders able to be sent back to serve their sentences in Albania—good news for the rule of law and good news for the British taxpayer.

I am very grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend for his work on Albania, illegal migrants and returning offenders. We pay £40,000 a year to maintain a prisoner in their cell and we do that for foreign prisoners, too. Will my right hon. and learned Friend seek to make more arrangements with other countries to return their offenders, thus saving the taxpayer money?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is an expensive business to incarcerate people. The UK has over 100 prisoner transfer agreements. We are working hard to ensure that existing PTAs work as effectively as possible and deliver value for money for the taxpayer by removing FNOs to their home countries. My Department also has ambitions to secure PTAs with new countries. We are engaging with our counterparts in target countries to advance that. I will update the House in due course.

May I, too, thank the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister for the difference the agreement with Albania is making in reducing arrivals? Germany, a member of the ECHR, refuses to even allow claims from Albanians. Will the Secretary of State therefore consider derogating from the ECHR, as German appears to have done and as we did over prisoner voting, to further build on that success?

My hon. Friend has raised an important point. In the five months to the end of May, Albanian small boat arrivals were down by 90% on last year, and we have returned 1,800 illegal migrants and foreign criminals to Albania. Thanks to changes in our asylum system, we have gone from accepting one in five Albanian asylum claims to accepting just one in 50, in line with other European countries such as Germany.

I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend for the progress that he is making in the removal of Albanian prisoners from our jails. I know from my time in his Department that they make up a sizeable proportion of the foreign national offenders whom we have in custody here. Does he agree that, at a time when our prisons are so close to capacity, the return of foreign prisoners to their own countries is important to ensuring that our hard-working and skilled prison officers can focus their work on the rehabilitation of offenders who will eventually be released into their local communities here in the UK?

My hon. Friend is entirely right. I am glad that he has raised the issue of rehabilitation because, as he says, when prisons can run a full regime, the opportunities for rehabilitation are optimised. I recently visited HMP High Down to see prisoners being trained in a brand new, purpose-built warehouse. They are learning the skills that they need for life on the outside and that work is bearing fruit. The percentage of prisoners in work six months after release has doubled in the last year, and that means a better chance for them to go straight and a better chance for the community not to have to suffer from crime.

If the Secretary of State were doing a good job of returning foreign prisoners, we would expect to see overcrowding coming down, but on a recent visit to Wormwood Scrubs prison I found, increasingly, that two people were occupying a one-person cell without a shielded toilet, and that time out of cell was between one and two hours a day. If the Secretary of State is proud of his record, will he collect and publish those statistics? At the moment, his Department is refusing even to collect the time out of cell figures.

Those statistics are not published, but I thank the hon. Gentleman for going to HMP Wormwood Scrubs, because I think it is important for Members to visit prisons.

When it comes to the additional numbers in custody, the key element is the number of people on remand, which, as I have said, has risen by between 4,500 and 5,000 since the period before the pandemic. That is important, not only because those people have not necessarily been convicted of any crime and all Members should have some concerns about people being in custody for a long period, but because some have been recalled. Of course we will work to drive down the number of foreign national offenders, but, as I have said, the principal issue that we are facing at present is that of remand prisoners.

As always, I thank the Secretary of State for his answers. I know that our Ministers and our Government always maintain the highest human rights standards, and the highest standards in respect of prison conditions. Can the Secretary of State assure me that, when it comes to the transfer of Albanian prisoners, those high standards will be maintained in respect of both prison conditions and human rights?

The hon. Gentleman is right to raise this matter. Yes, we will be robust, but we will also be fair, and being fair means ensuring that basic standards relating to human behaviour and the way we treat our fellow human beings are upheld. When, as part of our robust arrangements with Albania, 200 of the most serious offenders—each costing us about £40,000 a year—are transferred there, that will happen in a dignified and appropriate way, and they will be serving in conditions with which both the hon. Gentleman and I will feel comfortable.

The UK Government are reportedly paying jailed Albanian offenders £1,500 to return to their country of origin as part of an early release scheme. Can the Secretary of State tell us how many of those whom he has sent back have been eligible for that money, and how—given that one of them has told the BBC that he plans to come back to the UK within days or weeks of his release—he can be sure that this scheme is an effective deterrent?

Let me begin by saying that I know the hon. Lady is standing in for the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald), and we wish him an early recovery. I will write to her about specific numbers but, on the issue of early removal, it is absolutely right that, if individuals who have served a requisite period in our jails can be sent back to their home countries, we should send them there, because of the cost to the British taxpayer but also because the capacity is needed to run a full rehabilitative regime. This policy is not controversial across parties and we are committed to upholding it.

Imprisonment for Public Protection Sentences

5. What assessment he has made of the impact of imprisonment for public protection sentences on the criminal justice system. (905635)

The number of IPP offenders in custody has fallen from 6,000 in 2012 to 2,916 at the end of March this year. That includes 1,561 who had been released but were then recalled. The Government are committed to helping IPP offenders to progress through their sentences, under the revised IPP action plan published in April, and towards safe release.

At age 17, my constituent Danny Weatherson was convicted of shoplifting, with a recommended term of 15 months. Seventeen years later, he has only just been granted parole, in a justice system that seems too under-resourced to progress his case. Imprisonment for public protection is a complex area, and many who serve such sentences undoubtedly do present a threat to the public, but does the Minister agree that discussions on reform should take place on a cross-party basis, with the voices of victims and justice campaigners heard, and that a functioning probation system is a prerequisite?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for the tone in which she asks about this issue. Obviously, the role of the Parole Board and the probation service is vital, and the Parole Board is regularly looking at cases. I welcome what she said about continuing to look at this matter, and the Government welcome the Justice Committee’s recent report, which was an important opportunity to take stock. The Lord Chancellor will speak further on this matter in due course.

Criminal Court Case Backlog

The Government remain committed to reducing the outstanding case load in the Crown court and are working with partners across the criminal justice system to do so. For two years in a row we have removed the cap on the number of days the Crown court can sit, in order to increase capacity. We are recruiting up to 1,000 judges across all jurisdictions this year, on top of the 1,000 we recruited last year. We have also extended the use of 16 Nightingale courtrooms and opened two permanent super-courtrooms in Manchester and Loughborough so that there are more courtrooms available across the court estate.

Will the Minister give the figures for the backlog in north Wales, where my constituency of Clwyd South is located, and for Wales overall? Will he also comment on any particular factors that are affecting those figures in Wales?

As of December 2022, the outstanding case load in north Wales was 337 and the outstanding case load in Wales was 2,106—a 34% increase from pre-pandemic levels. As with every region, the outstanding case load in Wales has been impacted by the pandemic and the disruptive action by the Criminal Bar Association. As I have said, the Government remain committed to reducing the outstanding case load in the Crown courts, working with partners across the system.

The Government have introduced the use of pre-recorded evidence in rape trials and are trialling an extension for other cases to allow parties to provide information while memories are fresh. My attention has been drawn to a case that predates the roll-out, in which those involved had to wait three years to give evidence. What assessment does the Minister have of the effectiveness of pre-recorded evidence in speeding up the justice process?

My hon. Friend raises a good point. On the roll-out of pre-recorded cross-examination—known as section 28—to victims of sexual and modern slavery offences in all Crown courts in England and Wales, this has been available to children and vulnerable adults since November 2020. It is particularly important with those vulnerable witnesses to ensure that their evidence is taken while it is fresh. The impact of that on speeding up cases is important. Rolling it out across the whole estate may mean that the impact of that evidence is diminished. That is why it is part of a programme—not just section 28 video recording, but the work we are doing on capacity and judicial recruitment. It is a package.

I wonder whether the Minister has considered the Magistrates Association report “Inaccessible courts: a barrier to inclusive justice”, which shows that magistrates courts in England and Wales have serious accessibility failings. It says that impacts on the efficiency and fairness of the justice system and undermines efforts to recruit a more diverse magistracy. One in five magistrates courts do not have level access. In 30% of courts, magistrates with a disability cannot sit in some or all of the courts in the complex. A third of courts do not have accessible toilets for them, and half do not have hearing loop systems installed or operating. Just what has happened to all that cash the Government claim to be investing? It certainly is not addressing the basics.

The Government are committed to improving the whole court estate, not just magistrates courts. On diversity, we are investing £1 million. On the accessibility of our physical estate, I have taken a particular interest in ensuring that those magistrates who have specific needs are supported. I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that investment in our court estate will continue to address all the issues that we face.

Prison Officer Numbers

We are committed to recruiting 5,000 additional prison officers across the public and private estate by the mid-2020s. We have seen recent improvements in recruitment, with 655 additional full-time equivalent officers appointed between December 2022 and March 2023 alone.

At risk of being potted, kettled or attacked with toothbrushes that have razors fastened to the end, the work of a prison officer is not for the faint-hearted, yet their role is essential to keeping us free. We have just celebrated Armed Forces Week, and rightly so—I say that as a former veteran—but it troubles me that we do not have a similar week to celebrate the work of prison officers. We do not do enough to recognise their service to keep us all safe and free, across society. Can we change that, please, and urgently?

My hon. Friend is right about the paramountcy of safety for our brave staff, which is why we have been investing in security, body-worn cameras, PAVA spray and so on. He is also right that prison officers are often hidden heroes in our society, and they do not always get the recognition they deserve. As it happens, this evening is His Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service staff awards, which I am looking forward to attending, and I am keen to find more ways to publicly recognise these incredible people for what they do. His suggestion of a Prison Officers Week is interesting. More generally, I hope all colleagues will take the opportunity to visit their local prisons and to speak directly to prison officers.

According to the Prison Officers Association, the turnover rate among officers is still very high. What discussions has the Minister had with the POA about not only recruitment but retention?

I have spoken to the POA about recruitment and retention, as the hon. Gentleman would expect. We have recently seen about a 1 percentage point improvement in the resignation rate, which is significant, but we have to make sure that all aspects of the job are right. Of course it is about pay and conditions, but it is also about things such as safety and making sure prison officers have the right support for what can be, mentally, a very difficult and straining job.

Court Process: Sexual Assault and Rape Victims

9. What steps his Department is taking to support victims of sexual assault and rape in the court process. (905639)

In the rape review action plan, we committed to expanding our victim support provision throughout the court process for victims of these dreadful crimes. We are more than quadrupling funding for victim and witness support services from 2009-10 levels, increasing the number of independent sexual violence advisers and independent domestic violence advisers to 1,000. We completed the roll-out of section 28 measures in September 2022, and we continue to deliver our enhanced specialist sexual violence support programme in selected Crown courts.

Can my right hon. Friend confirm what measures are taken for sexual assault and rape victims in remote, rural or coastal communities, where trials may take place a long way from their home?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is a champion for rural and coastal communities in all aspects. The Government take seriously the experience of victims across the country, no matter where they live. In addition to the measures I have just set out, the Crown Prosecution Service supports victims of crime from remote and rural areas, with victims being able to claim back travel expenses when they need to travel far to attend court. We recognise the challenges of rurality, which is why the MOJ’s sexual violence service design and delivery team has regular engagement with the National Rural Crime Network and is a member of the NRCN’s domestic violence working group.

This week, it has been three years since the harm panel’s report found a serious risk of harm to victims of domestic abuse and their children in the family courts, yet we have seen that nothing has changed. Heartbreakingly, the experiences of victims in the family courts all read the same: the mother criminalised, the children ignored, the father excused. One 10-year-old girl disclosed to the guardian assigned to her case that her father had sexually abused and assaulted her. The guardian dismissed this and, instead, read a book to her, saying that her mother had made it up and her father had done nothing wrong. With no definition of rape or consent in statute in the family courts, when will the Government put a stop to this national scandal?

I am grateful to the shadow Minister for her question. She will be aware that Lord Bellamy, whose portfolio covers the family courts, is looking at this issue carefully. Although it is not in my portfolio, I understand that two of the three limbs of the report she mentioned have already been implemented, and we anticipate implementing the final element later this year.

Violence against Women and Girls

10. What steps his Department is taking to reform the criminal justice system to help tackle violence against women and girls. (905641)

12. What steps his Department is taking to reform the criminal justice system to help tackle violence against women and girls. (905643)

20. What steps his Department is taking to reform the criminal justice system to help tackle violence against women and girls. (905652)

Tackling violence against women and girls is a driving mission of this Government, and we are delivering on it in three ways. First, we have created and are creating new offences, such as revenge porn, and coercive and controlling behaviour, so that abusers have no place to hide. Secondly, we are increasing penalties so that offenders are not just convicted and disgraced, but punished in a way that fits the crime and protects victims. Thirdly, we are supporting victims by quadrupling the funding for victim and witness support services.

Today, tragically, 300 women in Britain will be raped. Under this Government’s watch, in three of those cases there will be a charge. Under this Government’s watch, charging numbers have plummeted. What are the Government going to do about it?

What we are not going to do is come up with statistics that are completely untrue. This is incredibly important, because people listen to what the hon. Lady has to say and it is simply wrong to send a message out that people are not being prosecuted. Let me make one thing crystal clear: more people have been prosecuted for rape in the last year for which statistics are available than was the case in the last year of a Labour Government. That is an important point. If I may, I will read out something so that she understands this, because people are getting justice all the time. It relates to one of the new Nightingale courts that we have set up, in Cirencester. Let me tell her what happened when two victims spoke out as their rapist had been sent to prison for 25 years recently. Victim B said:

“I would just like to say how happy I am with the whole criminal justice system. I wasn’t sure whether to go”—

to the police—

“due to being scared and thinking nobody would believe me. If there is anyone out there with the same situation I encourage them go forward as soon as possible”.

Of course there is more to do, but people are being convicted, people are being put on trial and rapists are being punished.

The Domestic Abuse Act 2021 is vital. It finally introduced a full statutory definition of domestic abuse and banned the horrendous cross-examination of victims by their abusers. However, the Act also rolled out controversial polygraph lie detector testing of high-risk domestic abuse perpetrators. Will the Secretary of State meet me and other members of the all-party parliamentary group on perpetrators of domestic abuse to discuss our concerns that polygraphs are pure pseudoscience and have no place in otherwise vital legislation?

The hon. Lady raises an important and sensitive issue. She is right to say that polygraph results have to be handled with care. That said, that testing has been shown to be one of a number of important risk management tools in monitoring the compliance of high-risk sexual offenders with their licence conditions. In the way it is used by the probation service, polygraph is 80% to 90% reliable when indicating deception. However, she raises this important point and of course I would be happy to meet her to discuss it further.

It is two years since the Government’s rape review, which the Secretary of State referred to earlier, but too many rape victims are still being failed by the criminal justice system, at every stage of the process. Although it is good to hear those positive reviews, too many women are not experiencing this. So what more are the Government going to do to step up the work to ensure that dealing with rape is a priority?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right to talk about this issue, as indeed are all right hon. and hon. Members. All I respectfully plea for is some balance in the way we discuss this sensitive issue. Let me say something on the recovery that has taken place. The number of cases passed by the police, after having investigated the matter, to the Crown Prosecution Service for consideration of charge is up by more than 130%; the number of cases where the CPS decides to charge is up by more than 90%; and the number of cases that come to the Crown court is up by more than 120%. I am not suggesting that the job is done—of course it is not, and we need to support victims. That is why we invest in independent domestic violence advisers and independent sexual violence advisers; why we ensure that section 28 is rolled out; and why we have the specialist sexual violence support services in court. That is why we do all these things, and will do more: it is because we want to ensure justice for victims of this appalling crime.

Employment Tribunals: Average Waiting Times

11. What recent assessment he has made of trends in average waiting times for employment tribunals. (905642)

Following a merger of IT systems, there is no current data on average waiting times, but the outstanding caseload has reduced from 48,000 in February to 41,000 in March this year because of an increase in the number of sitting days. As well as the increased sitting day allocation, we continue to support and reform the employment tribunals process and to make progress in reducing the backlog.[Official Report, 3 July 2023, Vol. 735, c. 2MC.]

Members of my trade union, the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers, who submitted claims for a protective award in 2020, after being made redundant without consultation, are still waiting for the employment tribunal to hear their claim. They are owed thousands of pounds in respect of failure to consult before redundancy and it cannot be just that, three years on, they are still no closer to receiving compensation. Will the Minister look into the case, to ensure that their collective claim can be dealt with by the Tribunals Service as soon as possible, because it is not acceptable that it has not been dealt with three years on?

The tribunals are operationally independent, of course, but I would be more than happy to investigate the case that the hon. Gentleman mentions and see whether there are any issues causing the delay.

Prisoner Transfers: Albania

14. If he will take steps to negotiate prisoner transfer arrangements similar to those agreed with Albania with other countries. (905645)

Our prisoner transfer agreement with Albania came into force in May 2022. To build on that, as I have mentioned before, we announced a new arrangement with the Albanian Government in May this year to speed up prisoner transfers to Albania of the most serious offenders. The Government will energetically pursue bilateral agreements with EU partners and wider-world partners wherever possible.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that out of a prison population of 85,000, about 10,000 prisoners—12%—are foreign national offenders? He said earlier that we have over 100 prisoner transfer agreements, but only a handful of them are compulsory, where we send prisoners back whether they want to go back or not. Can we have more compulsory prisoner transfer agreements with countries that have a large number of nationals in our jails?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this issue consistently—he was raising it when I first came to the House in 2015, and he is absolutely right to do so. Yes, we will continue to work on the issue. At the risk of stating the obvious, those agreements have to be agreed to by the other nation, but I can assure him that those matters are getting very close focus and attention.

Sentencing Hearings: Offenders’ Attendance

15. If he will bring forward legislative proposals to require offenders to be present for their sentencing hearing. (905646)

I am pleased to be able to say that we are committed to bringing forward legislation to enable offenders to be compelled to attend their sentencing hearing. Offenders who rob innocence, betray lives and shatter families should be required to face the consequences of their actions and hear society’s condemnation expressed through the sentencing remarks of the judge.

I have recently tabled an early-day motion to put it on record in the House formally the pain that the wilful absence of an offender at a sentencing hearing causes bereaved families. Will the Secretary of State explain why provisions cannot be included in the Victims and Prisoners Bill to change that? Will he meet me and Cheryl Korbel to discuss when legislation will be brought forward and how bereaved families can be at the heart of shaping a change in the law, to ensure that no bereaved family who has to suffer in the fight for justice will face that situation at sentencing ever again?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising this case and for rightly identifying the anguish, pain and insult that families feel when a cowardly defendant refuses to attend court. On his specific question, he will understand that there are issues of scope and all sorts of things as to whether legislative measures can be included within certain Bills, but of course I will be happy to discuss that with him. The central point, however, is that there is a cross-party belief that there needs to be some legislative progress—we are committed to that as well.

I have listened to what the Secretary of State has said, but the Government have had 13 years to compel criminals to attend courts to hear their sentences. The Government’s failure to do that has meant that in the last year alone the killers of Olivia Pratt-Korbel, Zara Aleena and Sabina Nessa have all avoided hearing their sentences, and avoided hearing the impact that their callous crimes have had on the families left behind. Will the Government urgently make this simple change, and stop cowardly offenders from evading their sentencing hearings?

The hon. Lady raises an important point by referring to those three cases. What concerns me is that one defendant’s actions could be copied by others, who take the view that that is somehow a way of getting away from the consequences of their actions. She makes it a political point—we are in the House of Commons, so I totally understand that—but I could equally make the point that the legislation was not changed pre-2010 either. We have seen the anguish caused by these actions, so let me make the point that I want to know that when an offender is sitting in a cell, trying to get to sleep when the rest of the world is getting to sleep, the judge’s words of condemnation are ringing in their ears. There are victims who find it hard to ever recover, so why should that defendant ever be able to sleep soundly in their bed?

Asylum Seekers’ Access to Justice: Illegal Migration Bill

17. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the potential impact of the Illegal Migration Bill on access to justice for asylum seekers. (905648)

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

I thank the Minister for his answer. The Illegal Migration Bill would prevent UK courts from granting an interim remedy to delay the removal of an individual while their judicial review claim is heard. Is that not a fundamental attack on the rights of an individual to access the courts? Does he really believe that an asylum seeker will be able to participate effectively in a judicial review if they are already in Rwanda?

This is a fair country and we will always take what proper steps we should to ensure that individuals’ rights are upheld. I respectfully say this: as well as considering those migrants who come across the channel, the hon. Lady needs to think about those migrants on the north coast of France who are thinking about whether to put their lives into the hands of people traffickers. We need to send a clear message that they should not do so. I also say respectfully that she should think about the rights of the British people who are having to fund a great deal of this. We will be fair, but we will also be firm and make no apology for either.

Topical Questions

Since the last oral questions, I have brought forward measures in the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill to tackle strategic lawsuits against public participation—so-called SLAPPs—to give courts the power to dismiss lawsuits aimed at gagging campaigners and journalists who oppose financial misconduct. In the past week I have met victims and their families, including Georgia Harrison, to discuss new measures to tackle intimate image abuse, and Farah Naz, the aunt of tragically murdered Zara Aleena, to discuss compelling offenders to attend their sentencing hearing. I visited Snaresbrook Crown court, and HMP High Down where I opened a brand new DHL logistics workshop, which is supporting prisoners to learn the skills they need to turn their lives around.

According to the Government’s own statistics, 18% of knife possession offences involve juveniles, which is of great concern to my constituents in Southend West. What consideration is being given to increasing the sentence for those supplying a knife to an under-18, which is currently only six months? Should that not be the same as possession of a knife, which is currently four years?

We keep all these matters under review and my hon. Friend will know well that the role of a knife in the commission of criminal offences is already reflected in the criminal justice sentencing rules. For example, the starting point for a murder that is committed with a knife that is brought to a scene is considerably higher than it is in other circumstances. We also wish to ensure that knives do not get into prisons, which is why, as part of our £100 million security investment programme, we have funded enhanced gate security in 42 high-risk prison sites. On the issue of sentencing, we keep all matters under review, and I would be happy to discuss that with my hon. Friend.

May I add my congratulations to Dame Sue Carr on her historic appointment?

When he was Chancellor, the current Prime Minister let the murderous boss of Russia’s mercenary Wagner Group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, bypass sanctions so that he could abuse our courts to silence a British journalist who was exposing his crimes. Why did the British Government side with this Russian war criminal over the British press?

No, no, no—that is to completely misrepresent the situation. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have one of the most robust systems of sanctions; whether in an individual case money can be released is at the discretion of an arm’s length body. Of course the Chancellor was not seeking to do that, and to suggest that, I am afraid, is discreditable.

What is disappointing is that the Government’s proposed reforms in the economic crime Bill would still allow warlords to use these tactics to silence journalists in the British courts, but there is another area of concern as well. Will the Secretary of State confirm—because this is an area of doubt—whether the reforms he is proposing would prevent wealthy tax dodgers from silencing journalists in court, as the right hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi) threatened to do when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer?

I hope the hon. Gentleman will join me in welcoming the measures on SLAPPs, because it is very important to ensure that those people do not use their financial advantage to try to snuff out freedom of speech, legitimate investigative journalism and all the things we want to see in a free and fair society. By common consent, the measures we are introducing will make a very significant difference. We remain open to going further and to considering further matters, but we need to take it in stages. We are looking to manage the balance between freedom of speech and people’s right to access justice. These are important steps and have been widely welcomed, so it is right to see how they bed in.

T3. What measures is my right hon. Friend taking to protect children and young people from vile internet trolls who seek to encourage them to self-harm? (905659)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight this issue. We yesterday tabled an amendment to the Online Safety Bill that would create a new offence of encouraging or assisting serious self-harm, whether by verbal or electronic communications, publication or correspondence. That fills a gap in the law and, together with the broader regulatory measures in the Bill, it will help to protect people from such content. It remains our intention, however, when parliamentary time allows, to expand the offence to cover encouragement or assistance given by means other than such communications, which are currently out of scope of the Bill.

Anyone’s Child has a mass lobby of Parliament today, calling for reform of the UK’s failed and outdated drugs laws. Will a Justice Minister be meeting anybody from Anyone’s Child to hear their case for supporting, not punishing, those who take drugs and their families?

I do not have plans to do so, I confess, but if the hon. Lady is to have those conversations, I invite her to consider writing to me afterwards; if there are matters we can take up, I would be happy to do so.

T5. And so another migration Bill winds its way slowly out of the House of Lords, and when it becomes law, an army of human rights lawyers will try to frustrate it. Will the Government reflect that, if only we had had the courage to get out with a derogation from the European convention on human rights and the refugee convention, we might have solved the small boats crisis two years ago? Now my constituents are victims of that, because the Government want to put 2,000 migrants in RAF Scampton, and the same human rights lawyers in the Refugee Council will oppose it on the grounds that it is inhumane to put them next to hangars ridden with asbestos. Why do we not just get out of the convention? (905661)

No one is a more doughty defender of the people in his constituency who are concerned about matters relating to Scampton than my right hon. Friend. This is principally a Home Office matter, as he knows, but the points he has made will have reverberated not just in this Chamber but, I am sure, all the way down the road to Marsham Street.

T2. One way of reducing reoffending is to ensure that returning citizens can get into employment when they leave prison. Given that a number of former prisoners experience employment discrimination, is it not time to ban the box? (905658)

We have already taken important steps to recalibrate disclosures so that they have to take place only when absolutely necessary, but the hon. Gentleman is right about employment. A prisoner who gets into employment is 10% less likely to commit an offence. I am delighted to see, through the huge efforts of employment advisory boards, employment advisers and employment hubs in custody, that the proportion of offenders in employment six months after release has doubled in the past year. A lot of work has been done, but of course there is further to go.

Earlier, the Minister was asked about the backlog of criminal court cases and answered at length regarding Crown courts. On behalf of magistrates and magistrates court staff, can we have an update on the situation with magistrates courts, please?

The magistrates have continued to make good progress in reducing the backlog, and that is a testament to the work they do on our behalf.

T4. According to probation unions, recent restructure and staff shortages are making it extremely difficult to keep tabs on some of the most dangerous individuals in our society. That is adding to the already endemic workforce retention issues. Probation workers are struggling under the pressure, as many leave the profession, leaving newly qualified and less experienced staff to take the reins. Why are calls for immediate Government intervention being ignored by the Department, and will the Minister sit down with probation unions this week as they launch their campaign, Operation Protect? (905660)

The work that our probation service does is incredibly important and, like the work of prison officers, it often goes unseen. There have been recruitment challenges throughout society, as the hon. Lady will know, but we have been focusing particularly on recruiting into probation. I am pleased to report that, over the past couple of years, we have exceeded our target, which was already stretching to 4,000. In regions such as London, where recruitment has been particularly difficult, we have had encouraging signs, including, for example, 144 new trainee probation officers starting in London in 2022-23. Their ongoing training and professional development will be incredibly important over the next few years.

I wonder what conversations the Lord Chancellor can have with the Chief Coroner about the poor performance of the Somerset coroner’s office, where the waiting time went up from 23 weeks to 31 weeks in 2022 against a decrease in the rest of the country. That involves worse things for individual constituents. Mrs Deborah Cox has been waiting nearly four years for the coroner to get on with the job of providing an answer. That is deeply distressing for families, and I wonder what can be done.

My right hon. Friend has shown great interest in the work of coroners. They have judicial independence, but I am more than happy to raise his concerns with the Chief Coroner to see if any specific issues in Somerset are causing concern to his constituents.

T6. People who are released from prison into homelessness are much more likely to reoffend, but MOJ data shows that the community accommodation service tier 3 programme has had no meaningful impact on reducing the proportion of people leaving prison who are homeless on release or three months after release. Why does the Minister think the scheme is failing, and what will the Government do to fix it? (905662)

What the hon. Gentleman said is just not the case. He is absolutely right that securing accommodation on release is incredibly important—we have just had a similar conversation about employment, but accommodation underpins so much else, including the ability to get into work—but the tier 3 accommodation that he mentions had, by February of this year, already supported more than 5,000 people who would otherwise have left prison without a home to go to.

Further to the Minister’s comments about the progress made in magistrates courts, may I thank him for recently meeting members of the Cheshire bench who came to Parliament? Will he update the House on the decision to pause the additional sentencing powers granted to magistrates in 2022? Does he agree with me and members of the Magistrates Association that restoring those powers could free up about 1,700 extra Crown court sitting days each year?

The change in sentencing powers was no reflection on the magistrates, whose work is highly valued. The Department continues to keep the sentencing powers under review. I give my hon. Friend the commitment that the issues raised in that meeting with his local bench are being progressed through the Department

T7. A constituent who is a victim of domestic abuse recently attended court for the trial of her abuser. An officer from the Crown Prosecution Service told her that they did not know whether the case would be called that day; that if it was not, they did not know when it would be called; and that if she dropped the charges, the CPS would arrange a lifetime injunction preventing her abuser from contacting her. An injunction might afford my constituent some protection, but it would not deliver justice or prevent other women from being attacked by the same abuser. Will the Secretary of State investigate such unacceptable practices, which seek to reduce backlogs by persuading victims to withdraw from their right to the justice that they deserve? (905663)

The hon. Lady is absolutely right that people should have the opportunity to see justice done, and justice is done not simply by getting an injunction—important though that may be—but by ensuring that an abuser hears the clang of the prison gate in appropriate circumstances and if that is what the court orders. I do not know specifically what happened in that case, but I can say that, under the victims code, individuals have the opportunity to raise issues with the CPS. Supposing that they were seeking to drop a case, there is now a victim’s right to review—to say to the CPS, “Look again at this.” Equally, there is the opportunity for court familiarisation visits or special measures applications. That is all about ensuring that, where they want to, victims have their day in court and see justice done.

My understanding of the law presently is that if someone is driving a motor vehicle and they kill an individual, their blood can be taken without their consent, but the blood cannot be tested unless the defendant gives their consent, and if the defendant refuses to give consent, that is accepted as guilt in the eyes of the law. That meant that Claire, the mother of six-year-old Sharlotte-Sky, who tragically lost her life in Norton Green due to John Owen, who was on drink and drugs, waited over a year before she got her day in court and justice. Will the Lord Chancellor back my campaign for Sharlotte’s law to be introduced?

My hon. Friend has been a doughty champion on this issue and he continues to raise it. I suggest that he and I have a conversation in due course.

When my constituent reported her rape to the police 14 months ago, she also revealed that the rape had been videoed by the perpetrator. The police are now in possession of the mobile phone that this has been recorded on, but she is still waiting for her justice and her day in court. Could the Minister say how long my constituent might expect to wait to get justice?

The hon. Lady will appreciate that I am unable to comment on the specifics of a case, and it would probably be inappropriate to do so in the Chamber, but if she would like to write to me with the details that she cannot share on the Floor of the House, I am happy to look at them.

Waitrose is based in my constituency, and in recent meetings with the partners and with other supermarkets, it has raised with me the scourge of shoplifting. Organised gangs operating with impunity across the UK are engaging in retail crime. They are often inflicting violence against workers using weapons, and they are costing supermarkets a fortune. Can we do more work on the deterrent effect of greater sentencing, and may I urge the Minister to look at whether the provisions of the Protection of Workers (Retail and Age-restricted Goods and Services) (Scotland) Act 2021 could be rolled out in England too?

Let me make a couple of points. First, increasing the number of police officers means that there is more resource to try to ensure that the people who commit this crime—and it is not a victimless crime, by the way—are brought to book. Secondly, I am proud of the fact that we have doubled the maximum sentence for assault on an emergency worker, so that defendants can be properly punished where they have assaulted police officers, ambulance staff or potentially people who work in supermarkets, though I would query whether they are in scope.

One of the concerns raised with me by several victims of domestic abuse has been their experience of victim blaming in the criminal justice system. Can the Secretary of State outline what steps his Department is taking to tackle victim blaming and provide better support to survivors of domestic abuse and sexual violence?

Significant work is under way across the system to tackle victim blaming and disproportionate attention on victim credibility. As part of that, we developed Operation Soteria, which ensures that officers and prosecutors are focusing their investigations on the behaviour and offending pattern of suspects, rather than on subjective judgments of victims’ credibility. I am happy to meet the hon. Lady if she would like to discuss this further.

Will the Lord Chancellor confirm that it remains the Government’s intention to update and modernise our human rights law as necessary, but to do so while firmly remaining in adherence to the convention on human rights?

Yes, that is correct. Having carefully considered the Government’s legislative programme in the round, I can inform the House that we have decided not to proceed with the Bill of Rights, but the Government remain committed to a human rights framework that is up to date, fit for purpose and works for the British people. We have taken and are taking action to address specific issues with the Human Rights Act 1998 and the European convention, including through the Illegal Migration Bill, the Victims and Prisoners Bill, the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Act 2021 and the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill, the last of which addressed vexatious claims against veterans and the armed forces. It is right that we recalibrate and rebalance our constitution over time, and that process continues.

Rhianon Bragg, who was held hostage by her ex-partner, has faced multiple errors and omissions in her treatment as a victim. Given the catastrophic failings she has experienced in the criminal justice system, and with a parole hearing on 12 July, will the Secretary of State now review this case in full and support Rhianon’s call for an entire audit of the process from the victim’s perspective?

I am afraid that I did not get the first part of the right hon. Lady’s question, but if she writes to me, I will come back to her.

I recently visited Aylesbury Prison, where I was very impressed with the excellent work that is being done at the establishment as it has transformed from being a young offenders institution to a category C adult jail. One particular challenge, though, is the prevalence of psychoactive drugs such as spice. What progress is my right hon. Friend making on combating this appalling and deadly substance?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, both for the particular interest he takes in his local prison and for using his much broader experience across the system. He is right to identify the issue with keeping drugs out of prisons. Different substances come and go to some extent, but particularly for spice, the investment we have made in drug trace machines for post—I think there are now over 100 of those—has been very important.

The Ministry of Justice has been trying to sell Reading jail to a commercial developer for some time, but our community hopes that it can instead be turned into an arts hub. Can the Minister update me on that sale, and will he meet with me and constituents on this important matter?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. He and I have met, along with the other MP for Reading, my right hon. Friend the Member for Reading West (Sir Alok Sharma). As he is aware, a sale is progressing, and of course there is commercial sensitivity attached to that, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that assurances for purchase will be required by solicitors and all required due diligence will be undertaken. I will be happy to talk with him further.

Louise and her family are facing unnecessary and quite challenging delays in the local coroner’s service in Cheshire. This seems to be happening far too often at the moment. What more can Ministers do to speed up that process?

As the coroners are independent judicial office holders, we can continue to raise particular cases to find out what specific issues are holding back those cases. If the hon. Gentleman writes to me with the details of that case, I will ask the Chief Coroner to investigate.

Today, Inquest and 40 other justice organisations launch a campaign for a national oversight mechanism to systematically learn the lessons of inquests, inquiries and investigations from Grenfell to deaths in custody. Do the Government support that initiative?

I am more than happy to look at any specific proposals to see how we can improve the process of inquests and inquiries. Of course, my door is open if the hon. Gentleman wishes to have a more detailed discussion.

I am never one to miss an opportunity—thank you very much.

Does the Minister believe that there is a greater role for youth justice agencies to be involved at early stages, eliminating the need for repeated court dates if arrangements can be made with victims of crime and the offender support network to agree a mechanism of reparation and rehabilitation to reduce small offence cases in court? Do it simply—that is really what I am asking.

As always, the hon. Gentleman raises a really important issue. There can be some cases where reparation is exactly the right way to proceed, but it is case-specific. For some victims, peace and closure comes from meeting the defendant and understanding more about what prompted the crime, but other victims simply do not want that at all. It has to be taken on a case-by-case basis, but I will just make this point: one of the unnoticed things that has happened over the past 10 years is that the number of children in custody has gone down. We are diverting people from custody wherever possible so that they can have a crack at a decent future.