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Topical Questions

Volume 735: debated on Tuesday 27 June 2023

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.