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Volume 743: debated on Tuesday 9 January 2024

The Secretary of State was asked—

Parole Board Consideration Mechanism

1. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the Parole Board reconsideration mechanism. (900794)

The reconsideration mechanism introduced in July 2019 is a vital tool for public protection, allowing Ministers to intervene in broad cases where there is concern that the decision to release is irrational or procedurally flawed, or where there has been an error of law. Since 2019, this Government have used the mechanism to have 17 release decisions retaken by the Parole Board. Nine of those resulted in the board reversing its original decision to direct release, including the recent case of Colin Pitchfork.

The Treasurer of His Majesty’s Household, my right hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones), and I have both raised concerns about the release of Edwin Hopkins, the schoolgirl killer of Naomi Smith. I know that the Secretary of State cannot retrospectively apply the law around parole, but will he assure my constituents and residents in neighbouring Nuneaton that the new laws in the Victims and Prisoners Bill going through Parliament at the moment put public safety at the heart of future Parole Board decisions?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that extremely troubling case. The murder committed by Edwin Hopkins was a truly dreadful crime, and I understand the concern about the release of prisoners who have committed such heinous offences. The reforms in the Victims and Prisoners Bill do ensure that public safety is at the forefront of parole decisions, including by codifying the release test in law and introducing a new power to allow the Secretary of State to direct a second check on the release of some of the most serious offenders.

I thank the Lord Chancellor for his response and his clear commitment to ensuring that victims are considered. As the Member of Parliament for Strangford, many people contact me about those getting early parole and decisions that are made. Will he reassure me and the House that victims will be considered and contacted before any person who has carried out an evil crime is actually released?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. It is one thing being a victim of a crime in the first place but another not being kept updated on progress of the sentence of that individual, or indeed a parole decision. That is why we are absolutely committed through the victims code and other mechanisms to ensuring that victims are kept updated, including during the important parole process.

Child Sexual Exploitation: Historical Cases

2. What assessment he has made of the potential impact of the time taken to schedule court hearings for historical cases of child sexual exploitation on survivors and their families. (900795)

The House should be in no doubt as to how urgently we are working to accelerate justice. We will have recruited 1,000 new judges by the end of this year and extended the use of 24 Nightingale courtrooms, and we funded a record number of sitting days in courts last year. We have transformed how we support victims of sexual violence offences through the criminal justice system, including with the use of nearly 1,000 independent sexual violence advisers—some of those are especially for children—the nationwide roll-out of section 28 evidence procedures and pre-court familiarisation for vulnerable witnesses.

My constituent had to wait several years before her historical child sexual exploitation case was finally heard. During that time, the court date was cancelled twice, causing her immense distress. There is a backlog of about 65,000 Crown court cases—a third more there than in 2020—and nearly a third are waiting more than one year, compared with 10% in 2020. I appreciate what the Minister said about the additional barristers and judges recruited, but given the sensitive nature of these cases, could she indicate what percentage of the backlog is down to that and what she and her team are doing specifically to address it?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady, who has raised this issue before. She will know that listing is a matter for the independent judiciary, but I do not seek to hide behind that. Actually, I would like to meet her to discuss the specific reasons for adjourning the case she talked about, because we might be able to do something to help.

I draw the hon. Lady’s attention to two important things. A new police taskforce set up by the Government to support historical child sex abuse investigations has led to a 20% increase in child sex charges in the past year alone. In addition to that, I will say this. Greater Manchester currently has 59 live investigations into child sexual abuse. These are complex cases involving multiple perpetrators and multiple victims. In one case that recently went all the way through the court, the perpetrators did not even know each other—they had never met—so even the decision about how the group is arranged, how the case is allocated and the length of time it will need for listing is particularly complex. I would like to meet her, for the reasons I gave.

Victim Support

Supporting victims has broadly three elements. First, it means ensuring harmful behaviour is comprehensively criminalised. That is why we have legislated to create new offences of stalking, coercive and controlling behaviour, upskirting, revenge porn, non-fatal strangulation and cyberflashing. Secondly, it means ensuring that the punishment fits the crime, which is why the average sentence has increased by around 50% since 2010. Thirdly, it means supporting victims before, during and after the court process. That is why we are funding over 1,000 independent sexual violence advisers and independent domestic violence advisers by 2024-25, we have set up a 24/7 rape support helpline, and we are quadrupling funding for victims’ services in cash terms since 2010.

Cuckooing is not a victimless crime. The victims whose homes are invaded are frequently extremely vulnerable. Will the Secretary of State consider a separate specific offence of cuckooing in the Criminal Justice Bill to ensure not just that the punishment fits the crime, but that the crime fits the crime?

My hon. Friend has been brilliant in raising this issue time and time again. At least in part because of the pressure she has put on, we held a stakeholder engagement exercise on this issue with the police, criminal justice system partners, local authorities, other Government Departments and so on. The exercise reveals that there are civil orders and criminal offences which are available to disrupt it. It might be, for example, that the underlying offence is the possession of drugs with intent to supply, the possession of firearms or common assault. However, this issue is worthy of further consideration, so I will invite a conversation with her in due course.

Last week, I was contacted by a constituent who has been named in the local press as a victim of domestic abuse against their expressed wishes. As my right hon. and learned Friend will appreciate, naming has the potential to endanger their safety and harm their recovery. What more can be done to safeguard the confidentiality of victims of domestic abuse?

My hon. Friend raises an absolutely essential point, because giving evidence is a deeply traumatic experience. Powers in section 46 of the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999 allow the court, on application, to make a decision about anonymity and to take account of the circumstances of the alleged offending, the alleged offender, the alleged victim, and so on. That is a matter for the court. The court has to weigh the circumstances of the case against the overarching interests of transparency. That is a matter on which the courts are well placed to decide.

Carshalton and Wallington is supposed to be one of the safest parts of London, but it has been shocked by a number of knife and violent crime incidents recently, including a knife attack in Wallington Sainsbury’s on Christmas eve, which was traumatic not only for those involved but for those who witnessed it. Can my right hon. and learned Friend assure me that victims and witnesses of terrible crimes can get access to help and support while they wait for the police to build a case?

I thank my hon. Friend for drawing the attention of the House to that appalling incident. Yes, it is absolutely imperative that both victims and witnesses can access support in the aftermath of such shocking crimes. As I indicated, we are quadrupling funding for victims and witness support by 2024-25 on 2010 levels. This is important. Under the 2006 victims code that we inherited, support was available only for direct victims. We have changed that, so it is now available for witnesses who have suffered mental or emotional harm.

The Government left the role of Victims’ Commissioner unfilled for over a year and to this day have refused to place any duty on public bodies to co-operate with the postholder. Will the Government and the Secretary of State explain why they have not supported Labour’s proposals to give the role the same powers as the Domestic Abuse Commissioner has over public authorities such as the police?

The Victims’ Commissioner plays an important role and we are delighted that Baroness Newlove is taking it on again. She has an exemplary track record. The role sits within a wider approach that we are taking, which is to ensure, through the Victims and Prisoners Bill and through the revised victims code and so on, that victims go from being spectators of the criminal justice process to participants in it. I know the Victims’ Commissioner will help us on that journey.

What is being done to ensure that victims of crime, particularly violent crime, get the necessary mental health support they require, particularly where they can suffer ongoing mental health issues and trauma beyond the period of the crime itself?

The hon. Gentleman raises an absolutely essential point. As I indicated, we are quadrupling funding for victims’ services on 2010 levels. Part of that is directed through police and crime commissioners to procure and commission precisely the kind of support he has indicated. What I am also able to say is that in those tragic cases that result in a fatality, the Homicide Service is now better resourced to provide ongoing support. That may be physical support, but it may also, sadly, be the mental support that is desperately needed.

Rehabilitation of Prisoners: Prison Estate

5. What recent assessment he has made of the adequacy of the prison estate for the rehabilitation of prisoners. (900798)

In December last year we completed an estate-wide programme of surveys to assess the condition of each public sector prison, and I look forward to seeing the findings of those surveys. By the end of the current spending review period we will have invested nearly £4 billion towards the delivery of an additional 20,000 modern prison places to ensure that the right conditions are in place for the rehabilitation of prisoners, and in the last full financial year we spent more than £200 million on maintenance and upgrades—alongside, of course, our continued investment in purposeful activity within the prison estate.

I was delighted to receive an invitation from the Minister’s colleague the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Orpington (Gareth Bacon), to join him on a visit to Wormwood Scrubs Prison in my constituency this Thursday, but less delighted when the invitation was withdrawn yesterday on the basis that it had been “issued in error”. Had I been permitted to attend, I would have raised the subject of the letter sent to the Lord Chancellor on 7 December by 10 chairs of independent monitoring boards for London area prisons, including Wormwood Scrubs, which stated that

“prisons are overcrowded, not safe and most of those in prison do not lead a ‘useful’ life”.

In the absence of a reply to that letter, can the Prisons Minister tell us how he intends to make prisons fit for rehabilitation, given that, according to trade union sources, there is a maintenance backlog amounting to £3 billion?

If the hon. Gentleman would like to visit the Scrubs with me—and I am not issuing this one in error—I shall be happy to accompany him on a visit to his local prison.

As I have said, we continue to invest in our prison estate. We also continue to invest in increasing the number of prison officers—to whom I pay tribute for the work that they do day in, day out; I suspect that those on the Opposition Front Bench would join me in that—and to invest in purposeful activity. The efforts that we have put in across the estate are working, as is shown by the proportion of prison leavers who are in employment six months after their release, which has more than doubled in the two years to March 2023. I look forward to discussing this further with the hon. Gentleman in his local prison.

Order. As a Member of Parliament with a prison in his area, I find it disappointing that that invitation was withdrawn from a Member of Parliament with a prison in his own area. That is not how Members of Parliament should be treated, and I hope that the question of why a Member of Parliament has been refused access to a facility in his constituency will be investigated.

I understand from my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State that the invitation was sent in error by the office—it was not meant to be sent—but I am happy to honour that invitation.

I hope that the Minister will look into this, because I am concerned about access for Members of Parliament. I now call the Chair of the Select Committee.

I will not go on about how I might have got people into Wormwood Scrubs in the past in one way or another—[Interruption]—and, indeed, got some of them out!

I am sure the Minister will know that a key point that comes up time and again in reports from His Majesty’s chief inspector of prisons, and when issues are raised by the Justice Committee, is the lack of purposeful activity. The physical estate is part of that problem, but so are issues relating to staffing and access to education and other provision. Is it perhaps time for a strategy for the whole of the Prison Service with rehabilitation at its centre, and might not one solution to the problem be a statutory definition of the purposes of prison, of which rehabilitation—along with protection of the public—would be a key part? Would that not be a way of holding people’s feet to the fire in order to deliver rehabilitation in the public interest?

I shall certainly be happy to have that discussion with my hon. Friend if he feels that it would be useful. He is right to highlight the importance of adequate staff numbers, but I should point out that they have increased by 6.7% in the past year. I am also happy to tell him that this month we are launching the national regime model, which will require prisons to set out ambitious plans for dedicated purposeful activity—time out of cell. That will indeed hold their feet to the fire, because, as we know, such a regime is central to rehabilitation.

The latest figures show that the reoffending rate among those leaving prison has increased. That is partly because prison is failing to rehabilitate—which is no surprise, given how overcrowded, understaffed and dangerously unsafe many prisons are. In one case, after heavy rain, prison officers were having to wade through raw sewage while prisoners remained locked in their cells. Does the Minister accept that the appalling state of our prisons is not only failing to reduce crime, but breeding it?

The hon. Lady will not be surprised to hear that I do not agree with her assessments. I would highlight that reoffending rates are down on where they were when we inherited them in 2010. I have highlighted to the hon. Lady the investment in new staff and in our buildings. I would also highlight to her, and I hope that we will enjoy her support on this, the success of tough community sentences in reducing reoffending, compared with sentences of fewer than 12 months. I look forward to her support in delivering those changes.

I am going to remain on the subject of the prison estate. The Minister made a valiant attempt to defend the Conservatives’ woeful record on prisons, but they are failing to build the prison spaces we need to reduce this cycle of crime. Just last week it was revealed that the Government had built only 380 of the 1,000 pop-up prison cells that they promised by the end of 2023. Therefore, can the Minister at the very least confirm when the remaining 620 pop-up places will be built?

I would gently say to the hon. Lady that we will take no lessons on prison building from the Labour party—the party that promised three Titan prisons, with 7,500 places. How many were built? Zero. This is a Government who are committed to building 20,000 new, state-of-the-art prison places. Two prisons have already been built. One is in construction. One has just received planning permission, and I am hopeful that the other two of the six will receive that in due course.

Access to Legal Advice

Last year we spent £1 billion on civil legal aid to support the most vulnerable, and we recognise the potential benefits of early legal advice in supporting people to resolve their problems earlier. For example, last year we launched a £10 million housing loss prevention advice service. We invested in advice for welfare benefits issues, and early legal advice is also available for victims of domestic abuse in private family law proceedings, subject to the relevant means and evidence requirements. We will continue to invest in legal aid where we can see a benefit.

I thank the Minister for that response. Like many Members across this House, I regularly have constituents coming to me with many legal issues needing legal advice and support. Obviously, many Members are not appropriately qualified to offer that legal advice and support. Citizens Advice in Stoke-on-Trent are doing an excellent job trying to support many of my constituents with legal issues, but does my hon. Friend agree that it is vital that members of the public get timely and affordable legal advice when they need it?

My hon. Friend is right to praise the work of voluntary organisations such as Citizens Advice, and as I said in my original answer, we agree that investing has benefits. That is why, since 2015, we have invested more than £25 million to support litigants in person, including our current grant funding of around £10.4 million for improving outcomes to legal support grants. That is supporting 59 organisations across England and Wales, enabling them to provide urgent legal support and advice to help people resolve their legal problems. That is in addition to the investment in providing support on domestic violence, special guardianship orders, housing loss prevention and immigration.

In its Green Paper published in October 2023, the Law Society set out reforms to legal aid to help more people get early advice. Can the Justice Secretary confirm what discussions he has had with the Treasury, in advance of the Budget in March, regarding potential increases to the legal aid budget, and that Scotland will receive its share through Barnett consequentials?

I can confirm that, following the Bellamy report and the implementation of what is known as CLAIR—the criminal legal aid independent review—we have invested over £141 million extra in the legal aid system, addressing many of the concerns that legal practitioners, including the Law Society, have raised. I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that I am in constant dialogue with the Law Society on how we can improve legal advice for citizens.

Human Rights Legislation

The United Kingdom has a long-standing tradition of ensuring that rights and liberties are protected domestically and of fulfilling our international human rights obligations. We 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, including through the Illegal Migration Act 2023, the Victims and Prisoners Bill and the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Act 2021, which address the vexatious claims against veterans and the armed forces.

The Rwanda Bill is the second piece of legislation that this Government have introduced that they cannot guarantee will comply with vital convention rights. Does that not illustrate the total inadequacy of UK human rights legislation? Any old Government—even a crumbling Tory Government—can rip up fundamental rights without constraint, doing over the Supreme Court in the process.

No, I reject that characterisation. The European convention on human rights, under article 13, provides a right to an effective remedy. We think there is a perfectly respectable argument that our legislation fulfils that. We are committed to human rights, and we think we have a route that safeguards those rights and delivers on the interests of the British people.

The human rights campaign organisation Just Fair has said that a human rights Bill for Scotland would provide a blueprint for how the UK as a whole could enshrine social, economic and cultural rights in domestic law. I am certain that the Scottish Government would be happy to share their experience and expertise in this area, so will the Secretary of State commit to engaging with them, with a view to bringing forward equivalent UK legislation, following their example?

I completely agree on the common interest we share across the United Kingdom in wanting to advance social and economic rights—put another way, ensuring good jobs and good public services. Of course that is right. What is questionable is whether it is sensible to make those rights justiciable, as we would find people pursuing all sorts of actions that clog up the courts, leaving them unable to deal with other matters. The hon. Gentleman is right on the principle we all want to achieve for people in our country. Is he right in wanting more litigation and more legislation? I think we have different views on that.

The Scottish Government will bring forward a human rights Bill for Scotland, which is the right thing to do. Given the Justice Secretary’s previous statements in support of human rights and the ECHR, will he confirm his support for the Scottish approach? Surely putting human rights at the heart of Government and the wider public sector is the right thing to do.

It is important not to conflate those two things. We are a member of the European convention on human rights—I have already mentioned article 13—but that does not, in and of itself, determine how one should give effect to those rights. We already have the Human Rights Act 1998. It is not at all clear to me that Scotland’s proposed human rights Bill would advance human rights across the United Kingdom, but of course we will listen carefully to whatever the Scottish Government decide to introduce.

I am sure that the Secretary of State is aware that the ECHR and the HRA are integral to the Good Friday/Belfast agreement, setting out a framework for the policing and the very governance of Northern Ireland. Does he agree that any attempt to overhaul the ECHR and the HRA from this place could have serious consequences for the communities of Northern Ireland?

We have a human rights framework that we consider to be important. We are mindful of the points that the hon. Gentleman raises. We are satisfied that we can deliver on the priorities of the British people. It is a perfectly reasonable priority to want to ensure that we have warm hearts but an open front door, and we are satisfied that we can do so within our international legal obligations.

It was revealed yesterday that, despite the best efforts of the Home Office, an Albanian-speaking migrant who has spent half his life in Serbia, and who has been jailed in this country for 18 months for cannabis farming after having entered the UK illegally, has been allowed to remain in Britain after he successfully claimed that he cannot be deported to Serbia because he no longer speaks Serbian. This is despite Albanian being a recognised minority language in Serbia, and despite him living in this country with his Serbian brother. Does this not demonstrate why we need urgent reform of the asylum system and human rights laws to allow the rapid and effective deportation of such dangerous criminals?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that those who come to our country and betray this nation’s trust by acting illegally should not expect a warm welcome. That is why one of the things I am most proud of is signing a further prisoner transfer agreement with the Albanians to ensure that the British people, having suffered the initial crime, do not suffer the double punishment of having to pay £49,000 a year to house them in bed and breakfast accommodation in the United Kingdom. We will send them back, and that is exactly what we are doing.

May I take the Justice Secretary back to his interesting observations on the Rwanda Bill? He has said that the whole debate around the ECHR

“has been tainted by a misunderstanding of what the actual rights are, as though they are a foreign import that do not reflect some of the cultural norms in our country…nothing could be further from the truth.”—[Official Report, 13 February 2019; Vol. 654, c. 376WH.]

When it comes to the Rwanda Bill, why is he failing to uphold the ECHR and the Human Rights Act, which embody so many of the legal principles that the people of these islands hold so dear?

Respectfully, I completely reject that characterisation. We are remaining within the four corners of our international legal obligations. Our legislation is novel and contentious, but it remains within the four corners of our international legal obligations and delivers on the proper, insistent requirements of the British people, which are that we protect our borders and ensure fairness for all—for not only the British people, but those who have played by the rules and done the right thing when they have come to the UK. They will always have a warm welcome in our country. Those who act illegally can expect short shrift.

Of course, the Government state on the front page of the Rwanda Bill that they cannot guarantee that it complies with the ECHR, as the Justice Secretary well knows. The Bill also makes direct intrusions into devolved areas, because human rights are devolved to the Scottish Parliament. So will he confirm that a legislative consent motion will be sought from the Scottish Parliament on the safety of Rwanda?

The first point the hon. Gentleman was referring to is about the section 19(1)(b) statement, and such statements are not unusual—the much-missed Tessa Jowell took one through in the Bill that became the Communications Act 2003. There is nothing unusual about this, which is precisely why this provision was put in the Human Rights Act 1998. As for further LCMs, we will of course proceed in the normal way, and I will give that matter further consideration.

Custodial and Community Sentences

10. If he will make a comparative assessment of the effectiveness of short custodial sentences and sentences served in the community. (900804)

A 2019 Ministry of Justice analysis of a matched cohort of 30,000 offenders shows that those serving sentences of immediate custody of less than 12 months reoffend more often than similar offenders serving a sentence in the community—55% of those sentenced to less than 12 months’ immediate custody were convicted in the following 12 months, which compares with 32% among those serving their sentence in the community.

For years, I was a visitor at the Scrubs and at HMP Wandsworth. Persuade me that community sentences can be really tough.

Many, many more offenders will be serving their sentences in the community as a result of the measures in the upcoming Sentencing Bill. We all know that the Government have had to rush these measures out to deal with the prisons capacity crisis that they have created, but it is essential to recognise that these measures will rely heavily on a functioning probation service. With only one of the 33 probation delivery units inspected being rated as “good”, and all others being rated as “requiring improvement” or “inadequate,” what additional resources have been put in place to ensure that potentially dangerous criminals are being properly monitored?

We have recently increased the budget for probation by £155 million and ramped up recruitment, with an additional 4,000 staff recruited over the last period of time.

That is a four-year-old announcement dressed up as something new and, given the extensive changes in the Sentencing Bill, I am afraid that it will just not cut it. Under the Conservatives, our vital probation service has been taken to the brink of collapse, and on current performance it simply cannot handle the additional pressure that these measures will bring and keep the public safe. So will the Minister commit to ensuring that the measures in the Bill will not come into effect until there is not one probation delivery unit still rated as “inadequate”?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. We will keep this under review as the Bill passes through the House, and we will make further announcements on it in due course.

Probate Registry

The past 12 months have seen the largest volume of probate applications received by the service since 2006, and that follows two years of above-average receipts. In response, we have increased staffing levels by more than 100 people and streamlined processes. We have seen some improvement, in that the level of grants issued has been running at about 8,000 more over the past two months than receipts. The average mean length of time for a grant of probate following receipt of all the documents required is now 12 weeks.

I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. Back in November 2020, I led a Westminster Hall debate highlighting the failings of the probate service. The service was once excellent, but that is no longer the case—I could give many examples demonstrating its continuing failures. I appreciate the Minister’s efforts to improve the service, but enough is enough. If the service has not materially improved in the next three months, will the Minister take the appropriate action and remove those who are clearly underperforming, so that the service can return to the level it once was at?

My hon. Friend and I have had some interesting discussions on this topic over the past few months. Following a recovery plan to address the concerns that he and others have raised, I can reassure him that a new management team is in place and we are now seeing a distinct improvement in recruitment, competency, productivity and call handling, and for the past few months disposals have outstripped receipts. I appreciate that the service is not yet where we would want it to be, but I can reassure him that we are starting to see some impact as a result of the measures we have introduced. I am more than happy to have conversations with him so that we can work together to improve the service further.

Crown Court Case Backlog

We remain committed to reducing the outstanding caseload in the Crown court and have introduced a range of measures to achieve that aim. We funded over 100,000 sitting days in the last financial year and plan to deliver the same this year. Thanks to our investment in judicial recruitment, we expect to recruit more than 1,000 judges across all jurisdictions. We are investing over £220 million over the next two years, not just to improve maintenance but to ensure that the number of courts taken out of action for unplanned maintenance is reduced.

I am reassured by that answer, but can I press the Minister on other delays in the justice system? I have spoken to police officers who are incredibly frustrated by the delay in prosecuting those who they have arrested for multiple offences of shoplifting. What reassurance can the Minister offer to police officers in those circumstances?

It is a concern to hear that police officers remain concerned. Some of the latest performance statistics suggest that the gap between charge and first listing is falling—the latest data shows it is down two days, to 31 days. I am more than happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss any local issues he may have identified that are causing delays. Magistrates, who tend to deal with shoplifting cases, are among the most efficient parts of our justice system and list clear cases incredibly rapidly, but I am more than happy to discuss this further.

In the light of the Post Office scandal, does my hon. Friend agree that it is imperative that we not only clear the backlog as quickly as possible, because there have been deaths involved, but enable the Justice Secretary to strip the Post Office of its powers to independently prosecute?

My hon. Friend raises a good point. It is vital that the delivery of justice is swift. We appreciate that the wait for trial can be extremely difficult for victims, so we are doing all we can to ensure that cases are heard more swiftly. We are urgently working on the detail of how to clear the names of the postmasters as quickly as possible, and further detail will be announced in due course. There should be no disparity between the standard of justice in private and public prosecutions, and we will carefully consider the findings of Sir Wyn Williams’s inquiry.

The latest criminal court statistics show a Crown court backlog of 66,547 cases, once again breaking records. The next quarter has just ended, so does the Minister expect the figures to break records again?

In addition to the measures that we have already taken—unlimited sitting days, recruitment of judges, investment in courts to ensure they are resilient, and extending Nightingale courts—I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that we are building 58 new court rooms to ensure we have capacity. I have not seen the figures on the backlog, but the latest figures for the number of disposals—[Interruption.] Our courts and our judges are working flat out, as are all members of the criminal justice system. I reassure him that the level of disposals being undertaken by our judiciary is up and the work of our judiciary is exemplary.


I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. Between 2010-11 and 2020-21, the overall proven reoffending rate decreased from 31.6% to 24.4%. The Government continue to take action to drive down the reoffending rate even further by investing in initiatives to get more offenders into work, stable accommodation and substance misuse treatment on their release.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right; the key to rehabilitation and ending reoffending is employment and stable accommodation. He has spoken already about purposeful activity today, but may I ask him to look at making the subsistence payment available to all prisoners on release, because that would ensure access to the sort of settled accommodation that is required?

My hon. Friend makes an interesting suggestion. I am happy to meet him, if that would be helpful, to discuss further his ideas.

I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, which concerns my involvement with organisations related to addiction and recovery.

I acknowledge the positives of rolling out incentivised substance-free living wings, but they do not offer recovery as part of the process. Recovery wings offer a far greater chance of rehabilitation as they get people into recovery while they are in prison and before they are released. Currently, there are only seven planned across the prison estate, and I think that it will take Ministers to challenge civil servants and NHS fundholders to see those rolled out. Will the Minister examine the benefits of expanding recovery wings across the whole of the prison estate?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for both his question and the tone in which he asks it. He is absolutely right to highlight the importance of this scheme. As he will be aware, those seven wings are a relatively new step forward. We are seeing how they operate. I think, if I recall, they were initiated by the former Deputy Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Dominic Raab), when he was in post in the Ministry of Justice. I continue to look at this very carefully, but I am watching to see how those wings operate first, but I do so with an open mind.

Release of Violent Offenders: Victim Safety

14. What steps his Department is taking to help ensure the safety of victims after violent offenders are released. (900808)

Protecting the public is our top priority. Offenders are subject to strict licence conditions on release, which can include tagging and exclusion zones, and they can of course be returned to prison if they breach those conditions. Victims of violent and sexual offenders serving prison sentences of 12 months or more are legally entitled to request protected licence conditions on release, including exclusion zones. The probation service works with partners including the police under the multi-agency public protection arrangements, to closely manage the risk presented by the most serious offenders.

Rhianon Bragg’s attacker was convicted of stalking, possessing a firearm and making threats to kill. Only two months ago, the Parole Board decided that his probation release plan could not ensure public protection, yet he will be automatically released next month. I have sent numerous letters to Ministers on this matter but have received not a single reply. Given that the victim lives in a remote area, which makes conventional surveillance methods virtually impossible, will the Secretary of State finally provide a credible response to the urgent safety risks faced by victims such as Rhianon?

First, I thank the right hon. Lady for raising this case. I do know about the case of Rhianon Bragg—in the interests of complete transparency, I should say that I was at school with her. The Government introduced extended determinate sentences in order to better protect the public from dangerous offenders by making their early release dependent on the Parole Board. Offenders on extended determinate sentences must be released. As the right hon. Lady knows, there are no legal powers to hold them for longer at the end of that custodial term. However, they face years of strict supervision by the probation service with strict licence conditions, such as exclusion zones and curfews, and they will be returned to prison if they breach them. I am aware of the letter that was sent on the 14th to my right hon. Friend the Minister of State. He will of course be happy to meet the right hon. Lady to discuss those points.

Probation Officer Case Load

We have increased funding for the probation service by £155 million a year to recruit more staff, bring down caseloads and deliver better supervision of offenders in the community. We have also accelerated recruitment of trainee probation officers, particularly in areas with the most significant staffing challenges. As a result, more than 4,000 trainees started on training courses between April 2020 and March of last year.

Probation workloads are too high, which is having a terrible impact on both staff morale and retention as well as public safety. What consideration has the Minister given to the very reasonable proposal agreed between His Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service and the probation unions to free up staff time by abolishing the post-sentence supervision, which was brought in under privatisation and is seen as simply a waste of time by those probation officers and their employer?

The hon. Lady raises an important point. Although, on partial data for this year, caseloads are going down, she is right to highlight that they are still high. She makes a good point about the post-sentence supervision requirement, which I am happy to reflect on carefully. I understand that the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, the right hon. and learned Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) has met representatives to hear their views on the matter.

Safeguarding of Prisoners: Mental Health

16. Whether he is taking steps to help improve the safeguarding of prisoners with mental health needs. (900810)

We are committed to improving mental health outcomes for prisoners, including recruiting additional staff, because having adequate staffing in prisons is important; investing £625,000 of funding in the Samaritans each year until March 2025, which includes the delivery of the Listener scheme; and working alongside NHS England, which is responsible for delivering mental health support services in the custodial estate to ensure that they are joined up and effective.

I have been working with a constituent whose son sadly took his own life in Pentonville last year. Although it is well established that there is a high rate of mental health problems among prisoners, the provision of support is insufficient and even reliable data on the scale of the issue is lacking. Will the Government commit to a full review of the support and safeguarding for prisoners with mental health problems?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady, and I hope that through her I can pass on my sympathies and condolences to her constituent. I am not aware of the details of that case, but if she wants to write to me, I would be happy to look at that specific case. Sadly, there are too many deaths in custody and every one is a tragedy, so I am always happy to look at ways in which we can better improve the support available to those with mental health conditions or other health conditions that might make them more vulnerable within a custodial environment.

Topical Questions

I thank the many His Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service and His Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service staff who continue to work hard over the Christmas period to deliver justice and keep us safe. Since the last Justice questions, the Victims and Prisoners Bill has passed its Third Reading in this House. It will enshrine the overarching principles of the victims code in law. It will establish a permanent independent public advocate for victims of major incidents, and it will enable a second check on Parole Board decisions in the interests of public safety. The Sentencing Bill, which is cracking down on the worst offenders by extending whole-life orders for any murder involving sexual or sadistic conduct, also passed its Second Reading, as did the Criminal Justice Bill, which will ensure, among other things, that criminals face up to the consequences of their appalling actions by requiring them to attend their sentencing hearings.

Finally, in December, I took part in a park run at HMP Onley alongside prison staff and serving prisoners. Congratulations to all who took part, except perhaps my private secretary, who had the audacity to beat me.

The Minister mentions sexual offences, but it frustrates me beyond belief that my constituents have to wait on average 839 days for their cases to be heard. Is the distress caused taken into account, or is the system too broken?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to raise the issue of victims of serious sexual offences. We take that incredibly seriously, and that is why we have introduced measures such as section 28, which enables evidence to be taken and recorded in advance. We have increased the fees for barristers to make that more straightforward. We have also increased the number of independent sexual violence advisers, who accompany, as it were, those victims on that journey. That is very important to prevent dropout rates. This is an important point: the sentencing levels are much higher—up by 30% compared with 2010.

T2. I draw the attention of the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests in that my wife is an education lawyer. Parents appealing decisions in relation to education, health and care plans and health needs are forced to wait between nine months and 13 months from appeal registration to hearing. That is far too long in terms of a child’s development. Does my hon. Friend agree with that? Does he also share my concern that some schools are delaying providing education, health and care plans in the knowledge that it will take a year or more to have an appeal? (900820)

My right hon. Friend is right. Despite special educational needs and disabilities appeals and disposals being up by 24% and 29% respectively, I do share his concerns, and systematic reform is required. That is why through the SEND and alternative provision improvement plan, the Department for Education and ourselves will be working hard to ensure that it is improved. I am more than happy to meet my right hon. Friend to go through the details.

The Children’s Commissioner’s report on family contact in the youth estate states that at the weekend, in two young offenders institutes, boys spent only up to one hour outside their cell each day. We can clearly see why that has led to an increase in violence. What is the Minister going to do about it?

It is important to note that, since 2010 when we came into power, the number of under-18s in custody has dropped dramatically. The cohort now in young offenders institutes is, to put it politely, highly complex. We take that extremely seriously and want to ensure there are sufficient staff. We do not give up on people, but it is important to recognise that that cohort will have been convicted of extremely serious offences, and we want to ensure there are sufficient resources to try to get the best out of them.

T3. I recently met the senior coroner for my area about concerns over health services in north Wales and to discuss preventable deaths. As part of that work, he pointed me towards the Preventable Deaths Tracker, set up by Dr Georgia Richards in Oxford. Will the Secretary of State commit to meeting Dr Richards and me to discuss the potential benefits of the tracker? (900821)

My hon. Friend makes a great point. My officials have already met Dr Richards to discuss her work on the tracker and, together with the Chief Coroner’s office, we are exploring with her team how best to share the tracker on the various websites. However, I am more than happy to meet with my hon. Friend and Dr Richards to discuss how we can work together.

T4. Numerous studies have found that the numbers of minoritised and migrant women being held on remand are disproportionately high. For example, 10% of female black and Asian defendants were remanded in custody by magistrates courts, compared with 7% of white women. What steps are the Government taking to address those clear inequalities in the use of remand? (900822)

I am grateful to the hon. Lady; she will be aware of the work being done across the criminal justice system through both the race disparity review and the Lammy review in that context. Decisions on remand are taken by the judiciary, so it would be wrong for me to comment on judicial decisions, but I am happy to meet her to discuss this further if that would be helpful, and so is the Minister for disparity in the justice system, my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Mike Freer).

T5. Can the Secretary of State confirm that the Director of Public Prosecutions could take over a private prosecution and discontinue it? (900823)

The Crown Prosecution Service can take over any criminal prosecution. It may then carry out the prosecution or it may end or discontinue the prosecution if it does not believe it should have been brought in the first place.

T6.   I am pleased to say that the latest Scottish crime and justice survey has shown that the volume of crime in Scotland, including incidents not reported to the police, has fallen by 53%. In addition, we have one of the lowest levels of recorded crime in Scotland since 1974—50 years. I add my thanks to all those who work in Police Scotland Tayside for their duty and service on behalf of my constituents in Dundee. Will the Justice Secretary join me in congratulating Police Scotland and all the community safety partners who have contributed to that success? (900824)

We of course welcome any reduction in crime, and I am happy to congratulate Police Scotland on its work. It is encouraging that across the United Kingdom, and certainly across England and Wales, crime and reoffending are down. However, I urge the hon. Gentleman to ensure that Scotland does not anything that would be regrettable, such as rolling back on jury trials, which are a critical part of maintaining public confidence in the criminal justice system.

T8. Having worked in A&E at Christmas over the years, I have seen the outcome of alcohol-related violence and the injuries it causes. I know the Department has been looking at fitting alcohol monitoring tags for offenders during the festive season; what assessment have the Government made of their effectiveness in reducing alcohol-fuelled crime? (900827)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that point. Alcohol tags are hugely valuable and are being used increasingly to tackle alcohol-related offending, including violent crime, successfully. Around 2,800 individuals were wearing an alcohol tag at the end of November 2023, 900 more than in the same period the year before, and alcohol bans imposed in community sentences were complied with for 97.3% of the days monitored since their introduction in October 2020. They are a vital crime-fighting tool.

T9. In May 2022, my constituent Tallulah Cox was diagnosed with brain stem cancer. She was left catatonic from the radiation treatment, a side effect that her parents, Zoe and Richard, were never informed about. They then had to fight constantly for the support and care that she needed from her local council and NHS. That support never came. Little Tallulah passed away on 2 November last year— (900828)

Order. This is topical questions. I have to get everybody else in. If the hon. Lady is going to ask a topical question, it must be short and quick to allow others to ask theirs. Has the Minister been briefed on what is being asked?

Little Tallulah passed away aged two on 2 November last year after those services failed her. How can her parents get some justice?

This sounds like an absolutely appalling case and my heart goes out to Tallulah and her family. I am unaware of the details of the case, but if the hon. Lady writes to me, she will get a response.

Dozens of businesses have signed up to Torbay Council’s safety of women at night charter, which is being championed by Councillor Hayley Tranter. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that those who pose a threat to women, for example by spiking drinks, get the type of deterrent sentence that such disgraceful behaviour deserves?

I congratulate Torbay Council and Councillor Tranter on their excellent work to keep women safe in Torbay. Spiking is a disgusting crime that carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison depending on the harm that results. We are changing the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 to define the offence of spiking specifically and comprehensively in law, with a view to encouraging more people to come forward. However, the biggest barrier to conviction remains the fact that toxicology tests are often conducted after the substance has left a woman’s body. That is why we are investing in research for rapid drinks testing kits so that spiking will be easier to prove and we get more of the offenders behind bars.

My constituent was the victim of a violent attack, but because the perpetrator got a sentence of less than 12 months, she was not told when he was released from prison. The police say that it is impossible for them to go through the records of everybody who is released in order to advise her, so there is a gap in victim support. Will the Secretary of State commit to resolving that?

The hon. Lady raises an important point. I take that extremely seriously. Certainly, under the victims code, the rights of victims to be kept informed are far tighter than ever they used to be. If we need to go further, that seems to be a sensible conversation and I would be happy to have it.

For too many years, this House has been witness to wrongful convictions in the Post Office-Fujitsu scandal. There remain 800 Post Office convictions based on bad data. Until those convictions are overturned, the victims cannot claim compensation. We could do something good together if the Justice Secretary brought a simple Bill to quash all 800 convictions immediately.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, who, with his customary precision, puts his finger on that appalling injustice. The suggestion that he makes is receiving active consideration. I expect to be able to make further announcements shortly.

I add my support to the comments made by the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Julie Marson). Cuckooing is a terrible activity, and making it a specific crime not only makes sense but would, I suspect, lead to the prosecution of other crimes such as drug dealing.

As I indicated, I will have a conversation with my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Julie Marson) about that. There is very likely to be a substantive underlying offence, be it handling stolen goods, possession with intent to supply or firearms matters. This has been considered by way of discussions with criminal justice partners, but if there are further matters to consider with my hon. Friend, and indeed with the hon. Gentleman, I would be happy to have those conversations.

January is often considered family breakdown month. Anybody taking the terrifically difficult decision to separate this year will face not only a divorce costing over £14,000 on average, but months, or potentially more than a year, of resolving child and financial disputes. We need reform of focus in a range of areas. Will the Lord Chancellor kindly agree to meet me and the formidable Baroness Deech and Baroness Shackleton to look at our campaigns?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. I know that she campaigns tirelessly on this issue. I am more than happy to arrange a meeting with my noble Friend Lord Bellamy, who leads on this issue, to update her and the noble Baroness Deech—

To reduce reoffending we need a strong, locally focused and stand-alone probation service—similar to how things were before privatisation—so why are the Government moving in the opposite direction with their One HMPPS programme, which has triggered a formal dispute with the probation unions because it subsumes probation still further into prisons?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question; it is nice to answer questions from him again, as I did when he was shadow Secretary of State.

The One HMPPS programme is about different parts of the system working well together to create a system that delivers the outcomes that society wants to see. I take the opportunity, prompted by the hon. Gentleman, to pay tribute to all the staff in the probation service. I had the pleasure of visiting some of them in Southwark recently, and I pay tribute to all the work they are doing.

In a perfect world, the victims of the Horizon IT scandal would have their cases individually assessed by the Criminal Cases Review Commission and the Court of Appeal, but we are not in a perfect world. The scale of the miscarriage of justice is enormous, and there are hundreds of victims who understandably do not want to come forward because they have lost faith in the process. Will my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor now consider the exceptional and unique step of legislating to quash the convictions?

I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend, who speaks with such authority. The circumstances are truly exceptional. When I was a Back Bencher, I went on the record as saying that Horizon is the most serious miscarriage of justice since the Guildford Four or the Birmingham Six. But the clue is that there were four in the Guildford case and six in the Birmingham case; we are talking about hundreds of people. The situation is truly exceptional and unprecedented, and it will need an appropriate resolution.

Under the Illegal Migration Act 2023, victims of human trafficking who arrived in the UK via irregular routes would not have legal recourse to receive support under modern slavery provisions. Are Ministers comfortable with that? They do not look like monsters, so I assume not. If they are not, what will they do about it?

I will have to write to the hon. Gentleman and check exactly what the provisions are for legal aid under the Illegal Migration Act. I am more than happy to provide him with the details and meet him if necessary.

Precisely because legislating to overturn convictions would be so unprecedented, will my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor make sure that before such a step is taken, he is satisfied from conversations with the senior judiciary that the means of triaging and consolidating appeals that currently exist may not be capable of delivering justice within an acceptable timeframe?

That is precisely the point, and my hon. Friend has put his finger on it. Of course, we would not want to stray into the normal lane of the judiciary; we have huge respect for our independent judiciary, who do an exceptionally good job of ensuring that there is fairness on the facts before them. As I have said, the case is wholly unprecedented, and we will want to have exhausted all alternatives before taking radical action.

Spending on housing legal aid has fallen by more than half in the past decade, from £44 million to £20 million. Is this a proper response to growing insecurity, overcrowding and poor conditions in the housing market, or might it be a contributing factor?

I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that just last year we invested an extra £10 million in housing legal aid, so I think we are addressing the issue.