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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 737: debated on Tuesday 12 September 2023


The Secretary of State was asked—

Probation Service

Probation professionals perform a critical and invaluable role for our society. We are injecting an additional £155 million a year to recruit more staff, reduce case loads and continue to deliver better community supervision of offenders. We are seeing improvements in performance as that investment beds in, but there is more to do and I continue to monitor things closely.

I thank the Minister for that answer, but he will know that Napo, GMB and Unison all say that the probation service is facing soaring workloads. Employees are battling under the pressure and sickness rates are high. With many workers off sick, the impact on public safety will be massive. Something must be done. Stepping outside the politics of this, will he commit to working constructively with unions and other agencies to bring about a strategy that will address this critical area of probation?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman who I know takes a very close interest in these matters, and rightly so. I commit to working in partnership with unions and other representative bodies and others to make sure that we have the right support for this service. Let me reassure him that recruitment to the probation service has been very encouraging over the past three years and we have managed to exceed our stretching recruitment targets.

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

In July, His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Probation reported that it had found that far too many potential victims of domestic violence are at risk from those on probation due to wide-ranging systemic failures in the service. Furthermore, the chief inspector of the probation service said that things have deteriorated since the 2018 report into the probation service. Is the Minister not concerned that, once again, after 13 years of Conservative rule, things are continuing to get worse for victims of domestic violence?

First, may I join you, Mr Speaker, in welcoming the hon. Lady to her place? I look forward to working constructively with her. She raises an important point about the protection of people from domestic abuse from those who are on probation. I can reassure her that we have put in place further measures and, indeed, invested additional money—£1.5 million a year—to support those extra checks into addresses of where offenders may be going, to make sure that there is not that domestic abuse risk.

Prison Release: Employment

We continue to develop opportunities for work and training, both during custody and on release. I am pleased to say that the proportion of prison leavers employed six months after release has increased markedly over the past two years.

What help can the Department give to aid the mobility of this potential workforce and get them to where they need to be?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. Going to where the job opportunities are is incredibly important; I would mention to her opportunities such as the Jobcentre Plus railcard through the Department for Work and Pensions. We also need to make sure that, at the point of release, prisoners are put in touch with opportunities near to where they live—where they are going to. Although we work with employers large and small, there is a particular value in working with multi-site firms that have locations in many different places.

There have been seven deaths in Wormwood Scrubs prison as a result of self-harm in the past three years. The first of the inquests into those deaths—that of Luke Clarke—was concluded only last month. It found that inadequate care, fear and confusion contributed to Luke’s death. What is the Ministry of Justice doing to prevent the unacceptable level of self-inflicted and avoidable deaths in prison and what is it doing to speed up the inquest process? I am still waiting for the meeting into the inquest process that I was promised on 27 June by the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Mike Freer).

We were talking about employment on release, but what the hon. Gentleman raises is incredibly important. I have visited Wormwood Scrubs. Rates of self-harm are unacceptably high. They vary by place. In the women’s estate, we have a particular issue with self-harm. We are working closely with the national health service, which provides mental health support in prisons. I am absolutely determined that we bring down levels of self-harm.

Prison leavers in employment training are less likely to reoffend. That means that education and training for young offenders in prison is crucial. Will the Minister say why the Government have failed so far to implement a new prison education service? It was promised in their party’s manifesto in 2019. Implementing it in 2025 is too little, too late.

I join you, Mr Speaker, in welcoming the hon. Lady to her place and similarly look forward to working with her. I can bring her good news. First, there is an education service operating in every prison, with four contracted providers. We also have additional provision that governors can put in place, but for the new service that she mentions—it was indeed a manifesto commitment—the process is well under way. I look forward to being able to make further announcements before long.

Violence against Women and Girls

3. What steps his Department is taking to reform the criminal justice system to help tackle violence against women and girls. (906330)

10. What steps his Department is taking to reform the criminal justice system to help tackle violence against women and girls. (906338)

12. What steps his Department is taking to reform the criminal justice system to help tackle violence against women and girls. (906340)

The crimes associated with VAWG are abhorrent, which is why we have already taken significant action to strengthen the criminal justice system’s response to it, including for example through our end-to-end rape review, driving up prosecutions, and the introduction of new protections for victims through the landmark Domestic Abuse Act 2021. Much has been done, but we are ambitious in wanting to go further.

I understand what the Minister is saying, but it takes two years or more for rape cases to come to court, and 69% of victims withdraw from the cases before they come to trial. Has the Minister had the chance to look at our proposal for specialist rape courts in every Crown court in the country?

I crave your indulgence, Mr Speaker. May I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the hon. Member for Cardiff North (Anna McMorrin), who shadowed me for some time, and to the hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves), who also did so? I wish them both well, although given the latter’s election co-ordination role, hopefully not too well.

It remains our priority to deliver swifter access to justice for victims of rape. As the hon. Gentleman says, the experience of attending court is incredibly difficult for them. That is why we have committed to increasing the number of independent sexual violence advisers and independent domestic violence advisers to more than 1,000 over the next three years. In June 2022, we announced our ambitious specialist sexual violence support project in three Crown courts, aimed at improving facilities and technology.

On the hon. Gentleman’s specific question, I would urge a degree of caution on those proposals. Listing is a judicial prerogative, and it is important we retain flexibility in the use of the court estate to maximise the use of courts and judges’ time for a range of offences and to meet the needs of the courts.

The independent inquiry into child sexual abuse recognised the issues with the criminal justice system and said:

“The length of time taken to investigate and prosecute child sexual abuse cases was…a matter of significant concern. Delay within the criminal justice system can add to the harm caused by sexual abuse”.

The experience of a constituent I am helping suggests that is still the case. What mandatory training for court, judicial and other criminal justice is available to ensure that they appropriately support people who have been subject to this abuse?

It is nice to see the hon. Lady in her place and it is always a pleasure to answer questions from her. She highlights an important issue raised by IICSA and historic and current child sexual abuse. It is worth remembering that the investigation of such crimes can be lengthy because of the complexities of the crimes and of obtaining evidence. While training for the judiciary and courts is a matter for the judiciary and the Judicial College rather than for the Government, we have been investing in training, as have police forces, across a range of specialisms, including handling child sexual abuse cases. It is important that they are handled with sensitivity and with an understanding of the impact that the trauma has had on those who are victims, and indeed also those who are witnesses. She touched on a specific case and I am happy to engage with her outwith the Chamber if that would be helpful.

According to the latest research, rape charges are taking longer to be brought forward; the average time a victim has to wait for their attacker to be charged—just charged—is now 400 days, over a year. That is disgraceful, and the situation is getting worse. When will Ministers speed up the process and give women, girls and all victims of rape across England and Wales the justice they deserve?

The hon. Lady is right to highlight the importance of timeliness. One of the key aims of Operation Soteria—the new model for investigating rape and serious sexual offences that is being rolled out to all police forces in the coming months—is to improve timeliness. Investigations in this space are, of necessity, often complex and can take a long time. The number of rape convictions is at or around the level it was in 2010. Now, the number of cases passed by the police to the Crown Prosecution Service for charge is up 130%. The number of cases charged is up more than 90%, and the number of cases received in the Crown court is up by more than 120%. Much has been achieved, but she is right to highlight that there is always more that we can and should do in this important space.

To tackle violence against women and girls, we need a criminal justice system that works. Part of that is having laws that are up to date to deal with the issues that women face today. I had the pleasure of working with my right hon. Friend the Minister on amendments to the Online Safety Bill that will make it a criminal offence to post intimate images online without consent, but he, I and others know that there are still gaps in the law when it comes to the making of those images. Will he give us an indication of when the Government intend to bring forward further legislation, not only to deal with that, but to keep online safety under constant review?

It has been a pleasure to work with my right hon. Friend on those amendments to the Online Safety Bill, which returns to the Commons today. She is right to highlight the rapidly changing environment that we are legislating for and the need therefore to keep things under constant review. Although she tempts me, I shall resist the temptation to speculate on a forthcoming King’s Speech or any future legislative announcements. What I will say, which I hope will give her some reassurance, is that we have been clear that, as soon as legislative time can be found, the Government are committed to implementing the full package of measures in the Law Commission report.

Prisons: Wakefield

The most recent annual prison performance ratings for 2022-23 were published in July. His Majesty’s Prison and Young Offender Institution New Hall was rated a 2, which is a matter of concern. HMP Wakefield was rated a 4, or outstanding.

His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons inspected HMP Wakefield last year and had several concerns, including many that remained unaddressed since its previous visit. Those concerns included infrastructure that is in such a poor condition that it needs investment, insufficient healthcare staff, a lack of mental health interventions and too few activity places. The prison leadership and staff continue to do the right thing and should be praised, but when will the Minister play his part and get our prisons back on track?

The hon. Gentleman is right to talk about the inspectorate of prisons reports, which are a very important part of our system and help to hold the Prison Service and us to account. In the case of Wakefield, as he mentions, it was judged a 3, which is reasonably good, for safety, for respect and for rehabilitation and release planning. There was more to do on purposeful activity, which I readily accept is a theme we have seen in a number of reports from different prisons over time, particularly since covid. The inspector also mentioned the strong leadership at the prison and that the prison was settled. We need to continue to make progress, but I join the hon. Gentleman in playing tribute to the leadership at that prison and throughout our Prison Service, and to all the brilliant staff who make it what it is.

Criminal Courts: Backlog

My hon. Friend raises an important point, and we remain committed to working with our partners across the criminal justice system to try to ensure that court processes are as efficient as possible. We have introduced a raft of measures to achieve that aim, including allowing courts for a third year in a row to sit for an unlimited number of days, with extended use of 24 Nightingale courtrooms. In addition, we have opened two permanent super-courtrooms in Manchester and Loughborough and are recruiting an additional 1,000 judges across all jurisdictions.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that reply. In Suffolk, the backlog of criminal court cases remains stubbornly high, which is not only denying victims justice, but placing a huge burden on the police and costing the local taxpayer a fortune. Working with Suffolk’s police and crime commissioner Tim Passmore, can my hon. Friend produce a comprehensive and bespoke plan that first clears the backlog, and then sets out a long-term strategy for the efficient functioning of the courts in the county?

I can reassure my hon. Friend that in Suffolk the disposals to March 2023 were up by 23% on the previous quarter, while the outstanding case loads slightly reduced in the same period. That reflects the hard work that is done with our partners to ensure that we get through the case load as fast as possible. We continue to work with the judiciary to identify how we can get the high workload moving more smoothly. Across the Department, and working with our partners, the Crown court improvement group continues to look at best practice and the local criminal justice board will always look at best practice across the country to see what we can do to ensure that his area continues to perform.

Is the Minister aware that the criminal courts are full of cases relating to joint enterprise, a terrible miscarriage of justice? Will he and the Justice team promise to meet me and the campaigning group JENGbA—Joint Enterprise Not Guilty by Association—to see whether we can clear the justice system of the many people who should never have been in the courts?

The hon. Gentleman has campaigned on that issue for some time, and I have met his colleague, the hon. Member for Edmonton (Kate Osamor), to discuss it. The data collection does not support the identification of cases relating to joint enterprise, but I understand that the Crown Prosecution is now doing an exercise on better data collection to see whether the issue that he continues to raise, quite rightly, is borne out by the data, and we can see what action we might take to address any injustices.

As the hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) pointed out, chaos in our courts continues. Now, 500 security guards have voted for strike action after a pay offer worth just 38p an hour above the minimum wage. Peter Slator, chairman of OCS, which employs the guards, says in his annual review:

“This was an exceptional year where our colleagues went above and beyond to deliver reliable, high-quality services for our customers around the world in the most challenging circumstances. The reliability and resilience of our frontline colleagues during the pandemic has been exceptional.”

I am sure the Minister will agree that the Government should pay Mr Slator’s company enough for him to deliver fair pay. Will he intervene to stop further chaos in our courts?

Our courts are not in chaos. [Interruption.] I am sure that if the hon. Gentleman took the time to talk to all partners across the criminal justice system, they would bear that out. All elements of the criminal justice system, in whatever role they play, continue to ensure that it works smoothly. The pay award is a matter for the private sector employer; I will not intervene.

Discussions with Scottish Government

I am pleased to say that the inaugural meeting of the inter-ministerial group on justice is taking place this afternoon, chaired by Lord Bellamy and attended by the Scottish Government Cabinet Secretary for Justice, Angela Constance MSP, as well the Counsel General for Wales, Mick Antoniw MS. That new forum has been established by an agreement between the four nations of the UK. It has discussed justice issues of mutual interest.

I rise as a convinced devolutionist. In fact, I think I am the only Member of this place whose signature is on the Claim of Right for Scotland. As and when a new law is agreed in Edinburgh or Cardiff, say, what mechanism is in place to ensure that any such new law will not disrupt either England or other parts of the United Kingdom?

The hon. Gentleman raises a good point. We have more recently seen the Scottish Government attempt to railroad the rest of the UK on gender recognition. It is better when our legislatures work in tandem for the benefit of all parties, not when Scotland tries to disrupt other parts of the United Kingdom with ill-thought out legislation.

The Government will amend the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 this afternoon. That 50-year-old piece of legislation controls the shape of Scotland’s criminal justice system to punish drug addiction with the full force of the law rather than treat users, in health settings, as addicts with health conditions. What conversations has the Minister had with Cabinet colleagues in the Scottish Government on introducing a safe drug consumption room pilot in Glasgow?

I am not sure, based on recent reports, that that particular pilot is working well. I will happily ask colleagues to see whether that pilot is working as the hon. Gentleman says it is, but that is not what the newspapers are reporting. The UK Government’s response to it is something for the inter-ministerial group, which is meeting this afternoon.

I am a bit confused by the Minister’s response. There currently is no pilot in Glasgow, but perhaps there have been some positive discussions between the Scottish Government and the Government here. Given that there are 100 drug consumption rooms in more than 60 cities across the world, supported by mountains of evidence from NGOs, civil society groups and drug activists, alongside the Lord Advocate’s new policy not to prosecute drug users for possession offences committed within a pilot safer drugs consumption facility, can the Minister give an iron-clad commitment that the Government will not block this life-saving health measure?

How that legislation is dealt with is a matter for other colleagues, but I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that, if treating drug taking as a health issue is working as he suggests it is, we will learn from that and discuss it with our colleagues in the NHS. The broad principle of it being a health issue is being dealt with by the NHS and the Health Secretary. In terms of legislation, that is a matter for Cabinet colleagues.

Prison Estate

7. What recent assessment he has made of the adequacy of the prison estate for housing prisoners. (906335)

We are building 20,000 modern prison places to help rehabilitate prisoners, cut crime and protect the public, and we continue to invest in prison maintenance, so that existing places remain in use and safe.

The Minister’s answer is very interesting because, let’s face it, our prisons have been run down for 13 years. Many are so old that they were built before RAAC—reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete—was even a twinkle in somebody’s bank account. If we read the inspection reports, as I have, it is a list of woes. They are draughty, damp, infested, terribly overcrowded and woefully understaffed—hardly likely to enable rehabilitation. It is our communities that endure the consequences, with at least 37% of prison leavers reoffending within 18 months. It is simply not good enough, is it?

We continue to upgrade the prison estate. As I say, we are investing in 20,000 new places—the biggest expansion in the secure estate since the Victorian era. At the same time, we have been taking out some of our most overcrowded and unsuitable prisons. In the last financial year, we took out 1,900 places, and we are investing £168 million in custodial maintenance for 2023-24 and 2024-25.

The hon. Lady mentioned reoffending. There is no good level of reoffending but zero, but I am pleased to be able to report good progress on reoffending, which has been coming down as a result of more ex-offenders getting into employment, fewer of them being homeless and more being able to get suitable, good treatment for addiction.

The Justice Committee is proposing to hold an inquiry into future prison population and estate capacity, and I look forward to the Minister giving evidence to us about that. He will know that that is prompted in part by concerns that overall overcrowding in the adult male estate is some 23%, and it is much worse in many of the old local prisons. While he is right to draw attention to the Government’s new prison building programme, even if that were all completed on time, there would, according to figures we have seen, be a shortfall in March 2025 of about 2,300 places as against anticipated demand. What is going to be done to deal with that? Should we have a proper conversation with the public about what is a reasonable expectation of what can be done in prisons, what is the best use of prisons and who should be there?

On my hon. Friend’s last point, of course we must constantly be having an intelligent, constructive public debate about these matters. On the question of capacity, projections change, and there are many complex factors at play. I look forward, as ever, to being scrutinised by his Committee on that point.

It is important to note that crowding—doubling up in cells—has for a very long time been a feature of our prison system. Crowding overall is 2,000 fewer than it was when we came into government in 2010.

Foreign National Offenders

8. What steps he is taking with Cabinet colleagues to reduce the number of foreign national offenders in the prison system. (906336)

Between January 2019 and December 2022, we removed 13,851 foreign national offenders from the country. As my hon. Friend rightly suggests, that is all about close working with colleagues, including in the Home Office.

We have all seen the stories of convicted foreign criminals being pulled off planes at the last minute. The Nationality and Borders Act 2022 was brought in to improve the process of returning criminals—to speed up that process and increase the window for removal of foreign national offenders from prison under the early removal scheme. Could my right hon. Friend comment on how that scheme is working, how he expects it to affect the numbers, and how he expects the process to be sped up?

As my hon. Friend mentions, under the Nationality and Borders Act, we expanded the FNO early removal scheme window from nine months to 12 months, allowing for earlier removal. We are working closely with the Home Office on that. In May, we also agreed a landmark new deal with Albania, and we are working to negotiate new prisoner transfer agreements with EU member states and other countries.

I thank the Minister very much for that response. It has been reported that the proportion of Northern Ireland’s total jail population who hail from outside the United Kingdom and Ireland is disproportionately high—the figures indicate that it is between 7% and 9% per year. Has the Minister had an opportunity to assess that with the Department of Justice back home?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, given the way we are organised, we do not cover the Northern Ireland Prison Service. However, it is very important that we stay in close touch and, although I have not had that specific conversation recently with colleagues in Northern Ireland, there will no doubt be opportunities in the future.

Reading Gaol

The sale of Reading Prison is proceeding and, barring any unexpected complications, completion is expected later this autumn.

I thank the Minister for his answer, and for meeting me and the right hon. Member for Reading West (Sir Alok Sharma) recently to discuss this matter. Reading Gaol is a hugely important historic building, and nearly 13,000 people across Berkshire have now signed a petition asking the Government to work with me and the local arts community to turn the gaol into an arts hub. It has taken the Government a long time to discuss the proposed sale with their preferred bidder and no progress—or slow progress—appears to be being made. Will the Minister now reconsider the Government’s approach and work with me, Reading Borough Council and the local arts community to save this wonderful building?

The sale is progressing. Of course, any proposed development would be subject to approval from Reading Borough Council’s planning department, and the usual due diligence requirements and so on will apply.

We quite often throw around the term “doughty campaigner” in this Chamber, but I can certainly say that the hon. Gentleman and my right hon. Friend the Member for Reading West (Sir Alok Sharma), his neighbour, have been incredibly assiduous in their attention to this matter on behalf of their constituents. In turn, I commit to him that we will absolutely stay in touch.

Sentencing: Offender Attendance

It is right that those convicted of a crime face up to its consequences by being in court when they are sentenced. On 30 August, the Lord Chancellor announced his intention to legislate as soon as parliamentary time allows to enable judges to order an offender to attend court for sentencing, making it clear in legislation that reasonable force can be used to compel attendance and that refusal to comply with a judge’s order will cause the offender to face up to two years in custody.

In 2014, Colin Ash-Smith was convicted of murdering 16-year-old Claire Tiltman in my constituency of Dartford. His final insult to her was to refuse to attend the sentencing hearing, so I welcome the proposed changes to compel defendants to face up to the consequences of their actions. However, can the Minister confirm that there will be an opportunity for judges to hear representations from the prosecution, defence, and security staff before such action is taken?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and I hope he will allow me this opportunity to express my sympathy to the friends and family of Claire Tiltman, who lived in his constituency and, in 1993, was tragically murdered. I was glad to see her murderer brought to justice after so many years. Colin Ash-Smith, like Lucy Letby, was cowardly for not attending the sentencing hearing to face up to his appalling crime. Each case is different, so it is important that the court and the judge have discretion in how to make an attendance order, and in reaching that decision—although we are working through the details—we would expect the courts to consider the full circumstances of each individual case, including any representations made by the prosecution or the defence in that context.

If we want offenders to attend their sentencing, it does rather help if the court is open. Harrow Crown court was closed two and a half weeks ago because of the discovery of crumbling concrete—RAAC—with no indication as yet of any timescale for it to be reopened. Its closure will inevitably exacerbate the backlog of criminal cases in the London area and prevent victims of crime from seeing justice. Could the Minister provide quickly an update on the progress at getting Harrow Crown court modernised, fully repaired and open again?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, particularly for the dexterity with which he got Harrow Crown court in. He is right to highlight that case. I understand that remedial work is under way and that cases listed there have been transferred to other London courts to ensure they still continue to be heard. I understand from the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Mike Freer), that the indicative timescale to complete the works is six to nine months.

I welcome the shadow Minister, Kevin Brennan. It will be quieter on the Back Benches but no doubt he will make up for it on the Front Bench.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I suspect the Minister might anticipate what I am going to ask him because I am beginning to think the Department should be renamed the Department for Justice Delayed. Labour proposed that we change the law on attending sentencing back in 2022, and just last month the Leader of the Opposition said that we were prepared to amend the relevant legislation if there was no action, so why is it taking so long for the Government to intervene on behalf of victims and their families?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman and may I take the opportunity to welcome him to his place? I suspect there will occasionally be to-and-fros across this Chamber, but I hope there will also be opportunities, where we are in agreement, to work constructively together. We have been clear on our intention to bring forward appropriate legislation to reinforce the existing powers the judiciary has in this respect, but it is important that we get this right and that it builds in that degree of judicial discretion, because there may be some circumstances where victims would not wish to see the offender in court for sentencing because it would be deeply distressing or deeply disruptive. So it is important that we get this right. We are determined to do that, but we will work through the detail to make sure it is robust and effective.

Prison Staff Vacancies: England and Wales

We have recently seen indications of an improving national staffing picture in prisons, with an increase of 700 full-time equivalent bands 3 to 5 prison officers and youth justice workers in the year to June 2023.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that answer, but the damning report into HMP Woodhill, just adjacent to my constituency, was clear that staff shortages were a huge factor in the serious issues that prison faces. It is equally well known that HMP Spring Hill and HMP Grendon in my constituency have faced recruitment challenges. In that light, if we cannot staff the prisons that we do have, surely it is unworkable to carry on with my right hon. Friend’s totally unwanted plans to build a new mega-prison in my constituency and that planning appeal should be withdrawn.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who takes a close interest in these matters, and rightly so, particularly on behalf of his constituents who are prison officers and other staff in and around his constituency. I can assure him we are working urgently to address the findings and the urgent notification at Woodhill. I think we will come on to that a little later in questions from hon. Friends. The Lord Chancellor will, as ever, be publishing an action plan by the end of the month. We also have active recruitment campaigns in place for Grendon and Spring Hill and are seeking to increase numbers by incentivised recruitment.

Magistrates Courts

I recognise that there continues to be work to be done to improve conditions in some magistrates courts for the users, and that is why we have boosted the capital investment programme to £220 million over the next two years to March 2025 to improve the quality and enhance the resilience of the court and tribunal estate, allowing us to plan major projects much more in advance and with certainty. The improvements will ensure that those on the frontline of the justice system will benefit from buildings that are more accessible and sustainable.

We speak of access to justice meaning the availability of legal advice and representation but, for too many older and disabled people, physical access to justice through the magistrates courts in particular is well-nigh impossible because the buildings themselves are not fit for purpose. Actually, “not fit for purpose” was the term used to describe the magistrates courts in the Secretary of State’s constituency by the former police and crime commissioner. Do we not need more swift action to remedy the problem than the Minister has outlined?

I took quite a bit of time to read the report from the Magistrates Association on inaccessible courts to ensure that, where we can make reasonable adjustments, we make them, and that where we need to make more substantial investment to make the courts more accessible, particularly to make them compliant with the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, we do so and those works are prioritised. We continue to work on new courts, as in Blackpool and the City of London, to ensure that the estate is modernised and we have courts that are accessible and fit for purpose. The point is well made and it is in hand.

Magistrates: Training

To preserve the independence of the judiciary, the Lord Chief Justice has a statutory responsibility for the training of the judiciary under the Constitutional Reform Act 2005, and that includes magistrates and their legal advisers. Magistrates, and the legal advisers who support them in court, must complete induction training before hearing cases and, once magistrates are sitting, continuation training is provided on regular cycles. Impartial decision making is woven throughout all the material.

I thank the Minister for his answer. Chris Pincher and I have been working very closely to ensure that the police act strongly and swiftly in Shenstone near Lichfield over constant demonstrations at an Israeli company that supplies arms to the British armed forces. Two people went to trial at a magistrates court in Walsall and they were acquitted. It is reported—we do not know for sure because it is not a court of record—that the judge said

“on the principle of proportionality…their action was proportionate in comparison to the crimes against humanity which they were acting to stop”

by the Israelis. I think that, if it were true, is outrageous. What can be done within the judicial system to ensure that that sort of thing does not happen, if indeed it did?

My hon. Friend raises an important point about the independence of the judiciary. We have to be careful that we do not rely on reports by a third party, perhaps with a vested interest, because these cases are not reported officially. However, if he wishes to discuss any points of law that may lead to an appeal from the prosecuting authority, he can do so and I am happy to work with him and guide him on how that may be taken up with the Attorney General. In terms of any complaints about the behaviour of the judiciary, there is a clearly defined process that I am happy to discuss with my hon. Friend after today’s session.

Probation Service

At 30 June just over 20,000 people were working in the probation service—an increase of just over 2,300, or 13%, compared with 30 June the previous year.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer. Two horrific cases—those of Jordan McSweeney and Damien Bendall—show how vital it is to have effective supervision of recently released offenders. What lessons have been learned from those two cases, and will the Minister provide an update on the action being taken to address problems in the probation service caused by high vacancy rates and consequentially unmanageably large case loads for probation staff?

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend and again I express my sincere condolences to the families of Zara Aleena, Terri Harris, Connie Gent and John and Lacey Bennett. We have increased probation staff in the London area by 4.5% over the last year, and that includes 270 trainee probation officers in post. The service has accepted all the chief inspector’s recommendations in respect of the two appalling cases that my right hon. Friend mentioned, and it is implementing robust action plans, especially with regard to improving risk assessments.

Female Offenders: Short Sentences

17. Whether he has held recent discussions with the Welsh Government on developing community-based alternatives to imprisonment for female offenders serving short sentences. (906345)

Ministers engage regularly with colleagues in the Welsh Government, including discussions on female offenders and alternatives to custody. Both Governments work closely on delivering the “Women’s justice blueprint for Wales” on female offending.

Short sentences for women often do more harm than good, reinforcing trauma and leading to further reoffending. In 2022, two thirds of sentences for immediate custody for women were for less than 12 months. It is anticipated that 1,000 more women will be in prison by 2026. How does the Secretary of State justify the growing female prison population and the use of short sentences, given Wales’s ambition to divert as many women as possible away from prison?

The women’s population in prison has come down, and sentencing is a matter for the judiciary and not something in which the Government intervene. It is important that suitable alternatives to custody are available, and I join the right hon. Lady in paying tribute to the people running women’s centres, for example, which do a fantastic job specifically for women, as well as to the broader set of alternative and community sentence options. It is important that we make sure we continue to work on those, including working together with the Welsh Government.

Topical Questions

I have been asked to reply on behalf of the Lord Chancellor, who has been in Riga attending a Council of Europe meeting, where a political declaration was signed on support for the Ukrainian justice system. He is sorry not to be here for these oral questions, and he has asked me to convey to the House his thanks to the Metropolitan police for their quick work in finding and returning Daniel Khalife to custody. The independent investigation that the Lord Chancellor commissioned must now get to the bottom of this serious breach. Since the last oral questions, the Government have also announced that we will make whole life orders the expectation in sentencing where they can be applied. We have also outlined plans to order the worst offenders to attend court for their sentencing hearings. We want to ensure that the worst offenders receive their sentences in the full glare of the courtroom, and that victims have the opportunity to set out the impact the crime has had on them.

With Government spending for housing legal aid falling in the past decade from £44 million to £20 million and the spending for disrepair cases falling from nearly £4 million to just over £1 million, it is not a moment too soon that the Government have begun to restore some legal aid with the housing loss prevention advice service. Due to the Government’s disastrous Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, many housing legal aid providers shut up shop, leaving 42% of the population of England and Wales without a single provider in their local authority area and 84% with no access to welfare legal aid. What recent analysis has the Minister made of legal aid deserts, and what steps is he taking to remedy the situation?

We are putting more money into legal aid and criminal legal aid following the independent review. Specifically on housing, which the hon. Lady mentioned, we are injecting an additional £10 million from 1 August.

T3. What conversations has my right hon. Friend had across government to make sure that the sentencing for those convicted of dangerous cycling is equalised with the sentencing guidelines for those convicted of dangerous driving? (906355)

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, who I know takes a keen interest in this issue. The safety of our roads is a key objective for the Government, and protecting all road users is a priority. Like all road users, cyclists have a duty to behave in a safe and responsible manner. While laws are in place for cyclists, they are old and it can be difficult to successfully prosecute offences. That is why Department for Transport colleagues are considering bringing forward legislation to introduce new offences concerning dangerous cycling to tackle those rare instances where victims have been killed or seriously injured by irresponsible cycling behaviour.

I thank the Minister for the update about Daniel Khalife, but the fact remains that HMP Wandsworth has been a known problem for the best part of a decade, with a litany of failures including overcrowding, staffing and security issues. Khalife is not even the first escape from Wandsworth; there was an incident in 2019, which the chief inspector of prisons said was the result of a “serious security breach”. Why, after so many warnings about Wandsworth, have the Government failed to act?

We take these matters extremely seriously. The independent investigation will of course look at the question the hon. Lady raised specifically about the 2019 incident to ensure that lessons were learned. If we look at the independent review of progress from His Majesty’s inspectorate, we see that progress has been made in Wandsworth, particularly on staffing, which I know has rightly been a matter of considerable public interest. There has been an increase of some 25% in staffing specifically at Wandsworth since 2017.

Years of warnings and years of inaction—I am afraid that rather sums the Government up. On Sunday, the Justice Secretary told us that 40 prisoners have been moved from Wandsworth, claiming that that was out of “an abundance of caution”. Will the Minister tell us how many other prisoners will have to be moved across the whole prison estate as a result of this escape? What the public want to see is not an abundance of caution after the fact of an escape but an abundance of certainty that the prison estate is secure. Is it?

It is. The hon. Lady would not expect me to get into a running commentary on transfer arrangements when we are talking about security. I want to reassure her, the House and the public that escapes from prisons are very rare, and much rarer now than they used to be. The number of escapes from prison in the last 13 years—since 2010—is considerably lower than it was in the 13 years before.

T5.   To encourage active travel, people need to feel confident using our roads, yet the courts can impose only the same penalties on multiple offenders as on a first-timer. Will my right hon. Friend consider the introduction of escalating penalties for repeat traffic offences? (906357)

My hon. Friend is right to highlight the issue of traffic offences. As part of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022, there was an increase in the minimum disqualification periods for the serious offence of causing death by careless driving when under the influence of drink or drugs from two years to five years, and an increase from three to six years if there is a repeat offence within three years. The Department for Transport is also currently considering a broader call for evidence on motoring offences. I hope that the very recent report from the all-party parliamentary group for cycling and walking will be useful to it in that respect. I will ensure that colleagues at the DFT are aware of her interest in this issue.

T2. As the absurdity of terrorist offenders in low category prisons plays out, is it not time to free up space by removing Julian Assange from Belmarsh maximum security facility, where he has languished since April 2019, guilty only of a minor bail breach, when his real offence was exposing war crimes? Regardless of his place of incarceration, will the Minister ensure that he is able to attend proceedings in person, which he has been denied since January 2021, given all the comments about people being at court? (906354)

I think the hon. Gentleman has achieved his objective: to get something on the record. I will not comment on ongoing cases, but, speaking more generally, access to justice is at the heart of what we do.

T6.   I have a constituent who suffered life-changing injuries as a result of an assault eight years ago—she is not on her own, on that basis—but she was awarded only £150 from a compensation order during the criminal case and offered £1,000 from the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority. Will the Minister look at amending the Victims and Prisoners Bill so that victims can be given adequate care, compensation from offenders and support through the courts and, importantly, through the CICA? (906359)

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, who throughout her time in the House, and particularly while Home Secretary, has always taken a keen interest in supporting victims of crime. It is vital that victims get the compensation they are entitled to, be that from the offender or the criminal injuries compensation scheme, which paid out more than £173 million in 2022-23. The making of a compensation order is a matter for the court, and there is no limit on the amount that a court can order an offender to pay.

In respect of the criminal injuries compensation scheme, His Majesty’s Government are consulting on changes following the report of the independent inquiry into child sexual abuse alongside previous consultations. It is important that that can be considered fully, but that will be post-passage of the Victims and Prisoners Bill.

T4. One of my constituents tells me that they are at risk of losing their home because of how long they have had to wait for a benefit decision appeal. Will the Minister outline what steps his Department is taking to reduce the current 33-week waiting time for benefit decision appeals to be heard? (906356)

Across the whole tribunal process, the team will constantly monitor who is performing and who is not, and will share best practice. If the hon. Lady would like to write to me with the details of a particular case, I can investigate the particular cause of delay.

T7.   Parliament passed a law in 2015 that offenders convicted of a second or subsequent knife offence should go to prison, yet in the year to March, 16,000 such offenders—37% of the total—dodged a jail sentence altogether. That is the highest total since the law was introduced. Will Ministers ensure that the courts now hand down the sentences legislated for in this House eight years ago? (906360)

My hon. Friend is right to highlight the scourge of knife crime and the need for tough sentences. Although sentencing in an individual case is a matter for our independent judiciary, which is able to consider the specific circumstances of individual cases, in legislating on this issue Parliament was clear about its seriousness. That is reflected in average sentences for all types of knife crime, which are up from 6.5 months in 2010 to 8.1 months in 2020. In addition, 87% of those committing repeat offences were given a custodial sentence, including suspended sentences, which are a custodial sentence.

I have a number of constituents whose asylum appeals were allowed by courts and tribunals service, but have now been thrust into limbo while the case goes back to the Home Office for approval. What conversations have Ministers had with their Home Office colleagues on clearing the backlog that is preventing my constituents from getting on with their lives?

I am always happy to look at individual cases to see if there are specific issues causing a delay. Broadly speaking, I work with colleagues at the Home Office and the Solicitor General’s office to see what we can do to ensure that any delays in the process are smoothed out, so that people do not have to wait for their day in court.

T9. What review, if any, has the Department carried out to ensure that when courts extend bail, they ensure that the police are dealing with their investigations diligently and expeditiously? (906362)

My hon. Friend raises an important point for her constituents. I must stress that the independence of the judiciary is fundamental to the rule of law and the running of the justice system. Therefore, the Department has not and will not conduct a review into how the judiciary undertakes its functions in individual cases. However, I can reassure her that the judiciary ensures that the relevant agencies that it works with undertake their functions smoothly and effectively.

Is it not the case that last-minute cancellations in magistrates courts are largely caused by the inability to recruit and retain legal advisers, who are paid a lot less than other Government legal advisers? What steps will the Minister take to ensure an increase in wages and better terms and conditions for those legal advisers? Will he sit down with the PCS Union to try to resolve this intolerable situation?

We look carefully at why all cases are vacated; in fact, the biggest cause of vacation is often the non-availability of prosecution or defence counsel, not of legal executives.

May I put it to Ministers that the nine-month wait for granting simple probate is unfair on people trying to sell their parents’ home? I failed to get the probate service to work, and I have a constituent who has written to the Prime Minister. Will Ministers please sort it out?

The time taken once all required documents are received is between six and nine weeks. We always advise that no one should take a decision on the sale of a property until probate is granted, but I can reassure my hon. Friend that despite a significant increase in applications, the service is recruiting and training up more than 100 new caseworkers to ensure that it delivers the service that my hon. Friend wants, as do I.

Last month the United Nations called for an urgent Government review of sentences of imprisonment for public protection. Will the Secretary of State listen to the UN? Can he explain why the number of people with an IPP sentence recalled to prison without committing any further offence has soared in recent years?

I can confirm that the Lord Chancellor and I—and us all—are very conscious of the difficulties around IPP sentences, which would not be introduced today. We abolished them, as the hon. Lady knows, but there are people in prison who have been recalled or not released by the parole board because they have not been considered safe for release. Our objective is to help to manage people towards safe release into the community. To that end, our recently announced action plan is central.

The rehabilitation of offenders is so important in reducing the chances of them committing crime once released from prison, especially if they can get back into work. Could the Minister outline any schemes that help to give offenders the skills they need, and how they can access companies that are willing to give them a second chance in life?

My hon Friend is so right. In topical questions, I do not have the time to start to unpack all the different things I would like say, so I will not. Suffice it to say that brilliant companies are providing training opportunities.

I have written to the Secretary of State about the tragic case of my young constituent Gregg McGuire. He has agreed to meet with me and I am very grateful. Does his Department have any plans to reassess the current rules which mean that victims’ families are unable to appeal sentences for those convicted of causing death by careless driving?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady. I know she is meeting the Secretary of State to discuss this matter and I do not want to pre-empt that meeting. If she wishes, I am very happy to join that meeting with her, or even to meet her separately to talk about this issue if she feels that would be helpful.

Mr Speaker, you will not believe this, but it is almost six months since I finally secured a meeting with the Justice Minister and the Health Minister, after six cancellations, about what happened to section 4 of my Civil Partnerships, Marriages and Deaths (Registration etc) Act 2019, which empowers coroners to investigate stillbirths. I was assured that the law, passed by this House in February 2019 and with a consultation that closed in June 2019, would be published imminently and progress would be made, but nothing has happened. Is it ever going to happen?

The scale of the illegal drugs problem in prisons was such that five years ago the Government introduced a programme that cost £100 million. Has the problem got worse or improved in the time since?

We are seeing progress. It is a combined approach of drug recovery wings and incentivised subsidised free living, and ensuring that security is able to stop drugs getting into prison through things like x-ray body scanners, which we have deployed in many prisons.

It is perhaps unfortunate that many members of the public and much of the media only take an interest in prisons when there is an escape, but that is, thankfully, very rare. Will my right hon. Friend join me in hoping to now see a calm and measured public debate about the role of prisons, not least working out ways to improve rehabilitation, which ultimately protects the public.

My hon. Friend is exactly right. He has a long history with this issue since before he reached this House. It is, ultimately, all about rehabilitation, reducing reoffending and helping to keep the public safe.

Over 10,000 women have signed a public letter to the Prime Minister asking him to take action against the escalating campaign of threats and intimidation against women who stand up for women’s rights. Many of these women are particularly concerned that the institutions supposed to protect them are failing to do so, including the criminal justice system. Will the Minister with responsibility for victims be good enough to meet me and representatives of those who organised the letter to discuss this important issue?

The reputation of our justice system depends on the independence, integrity and professionalism of our judges. At the end of this month, the right hon. Lord Burnett of Maldon will retire as Lord Chief Justice, to be succeeded by Dame Susan Carr, who will be the first ever female Lord Chief Justice. Will the Minister place on the record in this House his appreciation, and all our appreciation, of Lord Burnett for the exceptional leadership he has shown to the judiciary throughout his term in office?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I know the Lord Chief Justice and I am very happy, on behalf of His Majesty’s Government and all those on the Government Front Bench, to do exactly as my hon. Friend says: to pay tribute to Lord Burnett’s exemplary period as Lord Chief Justice.

I would like to pay tribute to the campaigners who challenged joint enterprise. As a result, the Crown Prosecution Service has now committed to monitor who is prosecuted. I welcome the report at the end of this month, but will the Minister commit to an audit of all joint enterprise convictions, particularly as more black people are disproportionately impacted?

I can commit to wait until we have seen what the work being done by the CPS uncovers. Once we have data, we can then have a rational discussion on the next steps.

Is the Minister aware of the prevalence of the unfounded and unscientific concept of parental alienation within our family courts? It is causing suffering and, in some cases, violence against women and girls. What steps is the Department taking to ensure that the courts recognise the harm of this discredited concept?

The Department is well aware of the concerns, which is why the matter is currently under review. The results of that review, including publication of all the data and research behind the outcomes, will be published later this year.