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Topical Questions

Volume 745: debated on Tuesday 20 February 2024

Since the last Justice questions, I have met with the families of those killed by Valdo Calocane: Barnaby Webber, Grace O’Malley-Kumar and Ian Coates. They deserve answers, and a series of reviews are taking place, including by the Attorney General, on referring the sentence in that case to the Court of Appeal.

We have announced an early legal advice pilot to help families agree child arrangements quickly. I have visited Leeds to see how £6 million is being spent to roll out state-of-the-art courtrooms as part of our £220 million investment in the court estate. I have travelled to the USA to meet my counterparts to discuss how Russia can be held financially and legally to account, and I was fitted with a GPS tag to experience for myself how effective modern technology is in holding offenders and Justice Secretaries to account—a constant physical reminder that debts to society must be repaid, court orders must be observed, and transgressors face the very real risk of the clang of a prison gate. [Hon. Members: “Do you have it on now?”] No, I do not.

As my right hon. and learned Friend just mentioned, he spent a day wearing a GPS tag, along with Jack Elsom from The Sun. Could he outline what he learned from that experience, and say whether he thinks GPS tags are a robust and effective means of monitoring and punishing low-level offenders? Will he reveal to the House who else from the Lobby is on his list to be tagged?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. There is a serious point here: our modern GPS tags act as a constant physical reminder that debts to society must be repaid and that breach of a court order will be detected, so that a person who steps over the line, literally or metaphorically, and enters an area from which he is barred knows that he is liable to be returned to court and sent to prison. We could put the entire Lobby on alcohol tags, but I think that would deal a fatal blow to the UK drinks industry.

I recently visited Cookham Wood young offenders institution. There, officers told me about the challenges they face, including a staffing shortage and shocking recruitment issues, which have led to rising levels of violence. Can the Minister say when he last visited Cookham Wood, and why this Government continue to be unable to solve those crucial problems?

I have visited Cookham Wood. I cannot remember the precise date, but the really important statistic to note is that in the period up to the end of September last year, we recruited an additional 1,400 prison officers. The numbers are going up, and the attrition rate is going down. [Interruption.] Hold on. That is because we have introduced measures such as the new colleague mentor scheme, rolled out £100 million on security and so on. We recognise that the safety of our prisons is in large measure down to the quality and quantity of our staff, and we are improving on both counts.

T3. There was an interesting debate in the House of Lords last night, in which Lord Hoffmann confirmed my understanding that the European Court of Human Rights was wrong to impose a rule 39 injunction to stop flights to Rwanda, and that we could safely ignore such an injunction. Will the Secretary of State confirm that that is his understanding of the law, and if we get the Bill through Parliament and have flights on the ground, will he ignore such an injunction? And would that not be a good issue on which to fight the election? (901603)

Order. Sir Edward, you should know better. This is topicals. You are a member of the Panel of Chairs as well; you are meant to set an example, not abuse your position.

I do not have the advantage of having listened to Lord Hoffmann, but we do not think that the Strasbourg Court will need to intervene, given that our domestic courts will have carefully assessed whether anyone we intend to remove to Rwanda would suffer serious and irreversible harm.

Unison, of which I am a proud member, has criticised Government plans to reintroduce employment tribunal fees, on the grounds that the

“only people who would benefit from their reintroduction are unscrupulous bosses”.

The Resolution Foundation has found that the lowest-paid workers were least likely to bring a claim, so how can the Justice Secretary defend plans to reintroduce employment tribunal fees, which will disproportionately affect those on low wages and present an obstacle to justice for those who need it most?

The £55 claim issue fee is modest, and this is completely different from the previous fee scheme, so I simply do not accept the hon. Gentleman’s characterisation. I am quite happy to defend that small, reasonable fee as necessary to help defray the costs of our system.

T6.   What percentage of the backlog in Crown court cases is due to foreign national offenders, and what has been done to reduce that? (901607)

Data on foreign national offenders is collected at the point when an individual becomes an offender—in other words, at the point of conviction—but in addition, the Ministry of Justice records the numbers in custody awaiting trial who are FNOs, and that stands at approximately 3,300. On driving the figures down, the Home Office is working to increase take-up of conditional cautions, which lead to FNOs being expelled from the UK, in place of prosecution, in appropriate cases.

T2. The Vagrancy Act 1824 is 200 years old this year. Yes, it was supposedly repealed in 2022, but it remains in force. The Criminal Justice Bill, unamended, represents a genuine danger to rough sleepers everywhere. When will Conservative Members stop this madness, and when will we see that 200-year-old piece of legislation taken off the books? (901601)

I think the hon. Lady for her question. The Criminal Justice Bill deals with repeal provisions for the Vagrancy Act, and we are bringing the Bill back on Report with more on rough sleeping.

T8. I welcome the fact that 20 Nightingale courtrooms have been set up around the country to boost capacity, but none of them appears to be in the east of England. I know we are all well behaved in the east, but have we been forgotten? (901609)

I can reassure my hon. Friend that we would not dream of forgetting about him. We have seen an increase, particularly on special educational needs and disabilities, of over 300% in receipts, and with the increased number of judges and panel members, we are seeing a 37% increase in disposals this year. We are trying to address the issue of SEND with the Department for Education, and if my hon. Friend thinks there is a problem in this area, I am more than happy to meet him to discuss it.

T4. I have heard the Minister defend the reintroduction of employment tribunal fees, but the last time the Government brought them in, there was a 70% drop in applications. How many people will be denied access to justice this time? (901604)

The hon. Gentleman is comparing apples with oranges. The two fees are completely different, in terms of quantum. A £55 claim issue fee is a small contribution towards the tribunals, which cost us £80 million a year to run. I do not think that that is unreasonable.

This week, we celebrate the fifth anniversary of my Civil Partnerships, Marriages and Deaths (Registration etc) Act 2019 completing its parliamentary stages, but it is also the fifth anniversary of the Government taking no action to enforce clause 4, which gives coroners the power to investigate stillbirths. There has been some progress: on 8 December, after 56 weeks, they have produced the results of that consultation, but there has been no Government response. When will we have a Government response, and what is the Government’s problem with getting on with something that is overwhelmingly supported?

I appreciate that my hon. Friend is increasingly agitated about the implementation of aspects of the Bill; however, the consultation was not conclusive, and the stillbirths landscape has changed. Those issues have to be addressed if the Bill is to be introduced correctly.

T5. According to a report produced by the National Audit Office last week, housing legal aid is out of reach for many people who are struggling to keep a roof over their head. Countless people facing the threat of eviction and repossession have recently contacted me for help. With the cost of living crisis and rising interest rates, it is crucial that people can access legal help with their housing issues. What is the Minister doing to ensure that housing legal aid is available to those who cannot afford legal help? (901605)

We are investing an initial £10 million to make sure that legal aid is available for exactly those problems.

Under the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017, there is a solemn duty on prison governors to prepare ex-offenders for life outside prison. Seven years on from the introduction of that duty, they are still not doing what they are required to do. We want reoffending ended, and if people are prepared properly for when they leave prison, we increase the chances of preventing reoffending. What action is my right hon. and learned Friend taking on this?

My hon. Friend has done spectacular work on this issue. His Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service published a policy framework setting out the steps prisons and probation services must take to meet their duty to refer those at risk of homelessness. I was reading it this morning, and it contains template referral forms—and many other aids—that are to be filled out at prescribed points in the prisoner journey. Governors are now held to account, as my hon. Friend rightly indicates, for their record on preparing prisoners for life post release, which is why I am able to say that in 2022-23, some 86% of prisoners were accommodated on the first night of release. That is up from 80% in 2019.

I know that question was on the Order Paper to be taken before topicals, but if the Justice Secretary could shorten his answers to make sure everyone has time in topicals, that would help me and others.

T7. Last week, I visited IDAS—Independent Domestic Abuse Services—which is an outstanding organisation supporting survivors of domestic and sexual violence. They highlighted that parents’ fear of having their children removed is preventing victims from presenting a case in full, and is preventing justice. How will the Minister ensure that power imbalances in the family courts are addressed? (901608)

I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s question. She will know how much we are doing on victim support, particularly in terms of sexual and domestic abuse. I would like to speak to her about this issue, and about parental responsibility in the family courts, so I think we should have a meeting. I ask her to write to my office after questions to arrange it.

Last week, Colin Pitchfork, the double child rapist and murderer, successfully applied for a reconsideration of the Parole Board’s decision not to release him, on the grounds that the decision was irrational. I have issued a survey across my South Leicestershire constituency on Parole Board reform. Will the Secretary of State meet me urgently to discuss the Parole Board rules, as amended in 2019?

I certainly will meet my hon. Friend. He has been assiduous for many years in raising this matter on behalf of his constituents. The Parole Board does an exceptionally good job. There are two cases in which decisions appear to have been overturned because they were irrational, and that is why I am meeting the Parole Board tomorrow.

The Justice Secretary mentioned the duty of candour that he imposed on the police. Has he considered legislating to introduce the same for all public bodies?

I can say that we want to extend that duty to healthcare settings, because we do not want health professionals closing ranks when something goes wrong. It is important to say that since Hillsborough there have been so many changes, including through the Inquiries Act 2005, which mean that there can be criminal liability for those who do not do what the hon. Gentleman and I must think is a matter of common sense, which is to tell the truth.

Wedding experts at Hitched say that independent celebrants are the biggest trend for couples getting married this year, and with the Church, registrars and humanists all providing additional options, it is about time that we updated the marriage laws, which are from 1836. Will the Government publish a substantive response to the Law Commission’s 2022 report on wedding reform?

As someone who benefited from the last wedding reform on equal marriage, I can say that this Government are entirely committed to ensuring that we report as fast as possible on the Law Commission’s review. If my hon. Friend would like to meet my noble Friend Lord Bellamy to discuss it further, we can make that happen.

The backlog of asylum and immigration tribunal cases has soared from 35,400 to 41,500 in a month—a result, no doubt, of the Home Office pushing through decisions at the end of last year to clear its previous backlog. What is the Minister doing to tackle this new backlog that they have created?

We are increasing fees for legal aid practitioners. We have seen a massive increase in cases going through the system, and that is why we are investing to make sure that legal representation is available.

Given that the existing prisons in Buckinghamshire cannot recruit to fill staffing vacancies, where does the Ministry of Justice think it will magic up staff and prison officers for the mega-prison that it now has planning permission for in my constituency?

My hon. Friend is a champion of his constituents. While we may disagree on this issue, I know that he speaks for a lot of his constituents, and he does so vocally in this House. We have highlighted the increase of 1,400 in the number of prison officers. We are confident that we can staff all the new prisons and that they are necessary to meet our obligations.

What can I do to change the Secretary of State’s view on joint enterprise? Has he read Lord Finkelstein’s recent and very good article in The Times? Please can the Minister have an open mind and look at it again? There are more than 1,000 young men in prison on long sentences.

Joint enterprise is there to ensure that those who act as the burglary lookout, those who provide the weapon in a murder and those who drive the getaway vehicle do not escape the consequences of their crimes, which shatter lives. It is already the case, as in the case of Jogee, that the person must have helped or encouraged the commission of the offence and intended to do so. If the Labour party’s position is that such people should escape culpability, it should say so. Our advice on this side of the House is clear: do not commit crime.