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Volume 745: debated on Tuesday 20 February 2024

The Secretary of State was asked—


1. What steps he is taking to ensure that people leaving prison are provided with support to help prevent reoffending. (901575)

17. What steps his Department is taking to help reduce rates of reoffending by people released from prison. (901593)

Since 2010, crime has fallen and so has reoffending, with the overall proven rate of reoffending down from over 31% in 2011-12 to 25% in 2021-22. That means that fewer innocent members of the public are suffering from the misery of falling victim to crime. We have gone further, building up initiatives including a new prison education service, expanded access to incentivised substance-free living wings for drug recovery, and the groundbreaking guarantee of 12 weeks’ post-release accommodation to secure that essential period of stability for offenders to turn their lives around.

With the reoffending rate at over 25%, rising to nearly 50% for burglary, reoffending is costing the country £18 billion a year and the service is failing to keep us safe. If just a small fraction of that cost were invested in probation staff to address the problems caused by 50,000 days lost through sickness and 2,000 people leaving each year, it could be transformative. Will the Justice Secretary back Operation Protect, the campaign spearheaded by the justice unions, and ensure that there is a comprehensive workforce plan to recruit, retain and return the staff needed to prevent reoffending?

The hon. Lady is right. We want to drive the offending rate down, and it is good news that it is down from about 31% in 2010 to 25% now, but we do believe in investing in probation. That is why the baseline is up by £155 million, and it is why we have added 4,000 trainees since 2020. Since the reunification of probation services, the number has risen by 17%. Probation officers keep society safe, and we will back them all the way.

I recently raised the issue of social media use in prison, allegedly by one of those responsible for the murder of Jack Woodley, the son of my constituent Zoey McGill. We have a local campaign against knife crime, and at the latest working group meeting we discussed deterrents. Zoey would like to understand what consequences were suffered by this individual for the posts that he sent, but also why he should be wearing a designer T-shirt and apparently leading a cushy life. Prison needs to be seen as a deterrent, but if inmates are having it easy with designer wear and no consequences, how is that a deterrent? May I ask the Secretary of State what is being done to address this, and to make prison the deterrent that it should be?

I know that the whole House will want to send its deepest sympathies to Zoey McGill following the shocking murder of her son in 2021. It was a dreadful crime, of which 10 men were convicted and for which they received life sentences. The use of social media in prisons is not acceptable, and this content was removed from the social media platform. We have been investing £100 million in prison security and new technology, including X-ray scanners to tackle the smuggling of contraband mobile phones. Those who are caught can face loss of privileges, more time in custody, and even a referral to the police and the Crown Prosecution Service for consideration of further charges.

Last year I was grateful for the Government’s support for my private Member’s Bill to limit Friday releases for vulnerable prisoners. It is an important measure and is now an Act, but it is only one of the measures that we should be taking to reduce reoffending and help people get back on their feet when they leave prison. The excellent charity Switchback has suggested that, at the very minimum, people should be leaving prison with access to ID and an internet-enabled mobile phone just to get their lives in order so that they can access universal credit and other services. What consideration has my right hon. and learned Friend given to those suggestions?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his excellent work in successfully championing the limit on Friday prison releases. The changes for which he called came into force last November and are exceptionally helpful, and he deserves great credit for that. He is also right to point to the brilliant work of Switchback, which has supported our resettlement work. That work includes the roll-out of 12 weeks’ guaranteed accommodation and the introduction of resettlement passports, which contain precisely the basic information to which my hon. Friend referred, such as a prisoner’s name, date of birth, national insurance number and release date. They help prisoners to access essential services such as housing and healthcare, and contribute to the driving down of reoffending, which, as was recognised by the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell), is significantly lower than it was in 2010.

The wife of a remand prisoner at Wormwood Scrubs wrote to me recently to say that the prison is so cold that prisoners are shaking, that they have to choose between work, social time and showering, and that the food is lacking in basic nutrition. I can explore these matters with the Prisons Minister in a couple of weeks’ time during our joint visit to the Scrubs, but does the Secretary of State agree that such conditions are not conducive to rehabilitation?

This is an important point. We do deprive people of liberty and sometimes we have to do so in the case of those on remand, but the conditions must be safe, decent and humane—austere, yes, but humane as well. I commend the hon. Gentleman for going to see the Scrubs with the Prisons Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar), and I shall be very interested to hear his views thereafter.

We need to tackle the revolving door of reoffending in our justice system, yet the reoffending rate, as a proportion of those leaving prison, continues to rise. Whatever the Secretary of State may say, I have heard time and again that the lack of secure housing, adequate and appropriate healthcare, education, job training and job support means that prisoners are being left to fail after they are released. It is the victims of crime who suffer when ex-prisoners reoffend. Can the Secretary of State announce when the Government expect the reoffending rate to go down?

It is important to note that reoffending is down compared with under the last Labour Government. The hon. Lady shakes her head, but one can dispute opinions in this House, but not facts. The reoffending rate in 2010 was around 31%; it is 25% now. That means fewer people falling victim to crime.

The hon. Lady refers to accommodation, and she is right to do so. What she did not advert to is this Government’s decision to provide 12 weeks’ guaranteed accommodation, which did not happen under a Labour Government. When I went to Luton and Dunstable, I spoke to a probation officer who has done the job for 30 years, and do you know what he said? It is the single most effective measure to drive down reoffending. Who did that? Not the Labour party, but us.

Dangerous Offenders: Increased Sentences

Measures in the Sentencing Bill will ensure that those who commit the worst crimes will receive the most severe punishment. The Bill creates a duty for the court to impose a whole life order for murders currently subject to a whole life order starting point and for those that involve sexual or sadistic conduct, unless there are exceptional circumstances. The Bill will also ensure that convicted rapists must serve 100% of their custodial term in prison, followed by a licence period.

I thank the Minister for his answer and welcome those measures. The two worst cases I have had to deal with as an MP was where women were brutally murdered by a partner or ex-partner. What are the Government going to do in response to the Clare Wade review to increase sentences for people who commit those awful, vile offences?

My hon. Friend is quite right to raise the issue of domestic homicide. We are determined to act to protect the victims of domestic abuse and ensure that the appropriate punishments are in place for perpetrators. That is why, following Clare Wade KC’s review, we are increasing sentences by introducing statutory aggravating factors for murders that are preceded by controlling or coercive behaviour, involve overkill, or are connected with the end of a relationship.

Does the Minister agree that wider society’s confidence in the judicial system is often determined by how dangerous offenders are treated? Does he agree that it is vital that we get the message out there, both to wider society and to potential offenders, that there is the ultimate price to pay, which is a long sentence in prison for criminal offences such as these?

Public Bodies: Legal Duty of Candour

3. With reference to his oral statement of 6 December 2023 on Hillsborough: Bishop James Jones Report, Official Report, column 341, if he will bring forward legislative proposals to introduce a legal duty of candour on public bodies. (901577)

In his excellent report, “The patronising disposition of unaccountable power”, Bishop James Jones called for the creation of the Hillsborough charter for bereaved families, as well as for the imposition of a duty of candour on police officers. We agree wholeheartedly, which is why the Government have signed the charter alongside the Crown Prosecution Service, the National Police Chiefs’ Council and others, and imposed a duty of candour on the police. We are also legislating to create a strong, permanent and independent public advocate to speak up for victims and their families, and to rigorously hold signatories to the charter to account. We stand ready to discuss what further steps may be necessary.

The parents of Zane Gbangbola are in the Public Gallery today. Zane was just seven when he died, following floods 10 years ago this month. The fire brigade detected hydrogen cyanide multiple times. His parents, Kye and Nicole, have been fighting for the truth about their son’s death ever since, and a duty of candour would have helped them to get it. In lieu of that, will the Government establish an independent panel inquiry with full disclosure, so that all the evidence can be reviewed by experts, we can finally get the truth about what happened to an innocent seven-year-old boy, and justice can be done?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising this deeply upsetting case, and I know the whole House will be thinking of Kye and Nicole as they continue to mourn the loss of Zane. The hon. Gentleman raises a critically important case. May I suggest that he and I discuss it and see what further steps can properly be taken in this difficult case?

I welcome the meeting that the Secretary of State has just offered.

The problem with the Government’s response is that it ought to be centred on the experiences of families, not on the convenience of state bureaucracy, in order to ensure that they are never repeated. There is nothing in what we have seen so far from the Government that goes as far as we and, more importantly, the families believe is necessary to require public authorities to act with candour and transparency. Why is the Secretary of State persisting with a piecemeal approach, instead of committing to a clear, compelling and comprehensive duty of candour, as proposed in the Hillsborough law?

As I say, the recommendations of Bishop James Jones’s report, which we have considered extremely carefully, contained the charter for bereaved families, and it is worth reflecting on what paragraph 3 of the report says. It requires the public body to

“approach forms of public scrutiny—including public inquiries and inquests—with candour, in an open, honest and transparent way, making full disclosure of relevant documents, material and facts.”

Taken together with the powers that exist under the Inquiries Act 2005, there is potentially criminal culpability, misconduct in a public office and perverting the course of justice, but of course we will keep this under review. We want to make sure that public bodies do what they should—that is, act transparently—and we will always consider what further steps can be taken.

Horizon System: Exoneration of Sub-postmasters

4. What steps he is taking to exonerate sub-postmasters who were prosecuted due to errors in the Post Office Horizon system. (901578)

7. What steps he is taking with Cabinet colleagues to exonerate sub-postmasters who were convicted due to errors in the Post Office Horizon system. (901583)

10. What steps he is taking with Cabinet colleagues to exonerate sub-postmasters who were convicted due to errors in the Post Office Horizon system. (901586)

In September 2020, a public inquiry was set up into the failings associated with the Post Office Horizon IT system and it is expected to report back later this year. In addition, over £160 million has already been paid out in compensation across three schemes.

However, in its December 2023 letter, the independent Horizon compensation advisory board expressed concern that the pace of exonerations was too slow, not least because evidence had been lost and many were simply too traumatised to come forward. That is why the Prime Minister has decided to bring forward legislation to quash the relevant convictions, and the Department for Business and Trade will be announcing details shortly. These wholly exceptional circumstances have led to this wholly exceptional course.

While I welcome the Government’s commitment to quash the wrongful convictions of sub-postmasters caught up in the Horizon scandal, I also recognise that this is a complex area of law that could even raise constitutional issues. Given that some sub-postmasters have been suffering for an extremely long time, does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that any legislation should deal with these issues swiftly and avoid any further delays?

I thank my hon. Friend for the careful and thoughtful way in which he addresses this significant issue. The judiciary and courts have dealt swiftly with the cases before them, but the scale and circumstances of the prosecution failure mean that this demands an unprecedented response, and that is why the Prime Minister announced this major step forward in response to the Horizon scandal. We are keen to ensure that the legislation achieves its goal of bringing prompt justice to all those who were wrongfully convicted, followed by rapid financial redress. It is not right that wholly innocent people could potentially go to their graves with the mark and stigma of a conviction hanging over them.

Every day we hear further revelations about the Post Office, and today’s shocking—well, it should be shocking—BBC story states that the 2016 Swift review noted that the Post Office had always known about the balancing transaction capability of Horizon and that the Government knew in 2016 that a Deloitte investigation into all Horizon transactions was under way and that this investigation was suddenly halted after sub-postmasters began legal action. Will the Secretary of State confirm whether the Ministry of Justice was aware of this, and does he believe that that apparent non-disclosure to the inquiry is a threat to judicial freedom and independence?

In 2020—coming up to four years ago now—an independent inquiry was set up under Mr Justice Wyn Williams. That is expected to report later this year, and it will go into properly exhaustive details about who knew what and when. We are absolutely clear that there has been an egregious failure of prosecution conduct—frankly, one that brings shame on those involved—and it is absolutely right that that inquiry should get to the bottom of what took place and who knew what and when.

The current chief executive of the Post Office said in evidence to the Business and Trade Committee last month that, despite various audits and investigations, we still do not know the full scope of the money overclaimed through Horizon, or where it went. Even the auditors are unable to give a firm figure. Postmasters such as my constituent Roger have suffered incredible stress and worry as well as significant financial loss, but the prospect of getting to the truth on these figures still seems far off.

Will the Secretary of State commit to working with the Secretary of State for Business and Trade and set out a timetable for updating the House on how much the Post Office took and what it did with the money, so that constituents like mine can start to get the answers and the justice that they deserve?

My heart goes out to Roger and people like him. I have constituents who are affected, as I am sure everyone in this House does. We are a fair-minded nation, which is why it strikes us to the core. The hon. Lady asks me to liaise with the Department for Business and Trade. Of course the MOJ will do everything it properly can, but DBT is leading on this. It is also worth reflecting that £160 million has already been paid out across the three schemes, and there is a very important, swift and robust approach of paying £600,000 to those who have their convictions quashed. That is the right approach. It is exceptional, but these are exceptional circumstances.

My right hon. and learned Friend will know that, only last week, the Court of Appeal criminal division, presided over by the Lady Chief Justice, quashed in bulk a number of Horizon appeals, on the basis of a half-hour hearing. When the cases get to court, the courts can deal with them swiftly.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that in framing any legislation, because of the constitutional implications, it is important that we bear in mind that the failures are the failure of a prosecutor to do their duty, or perhaps the failure of the state to come to the aid of victims, but they are not the failure of the courts, which always acted entirely properly on the material put before them by the parties at the time? It was a failure of the parties, not of the courts.

As always, my hon. Friend gets to the heart of it. This was a failure of the Post Office, which is an emanation of the state, and it is the duty of the state to put it right. The courts have approached this entirely properly. The Post Office failed to discharge the solemn obligations on any prosecutor to act fairly and to comply with their obligations under section 3 of the Criminal Procedure and Investigations Act 1996 to disclose material that might reasonably be considered capable of undermining the case of the prosecution, or of assisting the case of the defence. When I was prosecuting, the first rule was that we did not seek a conviction at all costs, which is an important principle that the Post Office failed to appreciate.

Whistleblowers have come forward to provide information that Fujitsu was given an additional contract by the Post Office in 2013 to re-platform transaction data that was previously held on an external storage system that was considered to be the gold standard. It was replaced by a system that made it virtually impossible to investigate financial transactions in a forensic audit. Does the Justice Secretary share our concern that this decision effectively destroyed evidence, preventing exactly the sort of audit trail that would exonerate those sub-postmasters who were convicted?

The Department for Business and Trade is better placed to answer those specific points, but I would say two things. First, as a matter of sacred principle, if material comes into a prosecutor’s possession that might be considered capable of undermining the case of the prosecution, that material should be disclosed to the defence. That is one of the things that has been considered by Sir Wyn Williams’s inquiry. What did the Post Office know, when did it know it, and what did it do with the material before it? Across the House, we want to get to the bottom of those questions.

Community Payback Pilots

It is a pleasure to respond to my first question from the hon. Gentleman since his election.

As part of the Government’s antisocial behaviour action plan, community payback teams are working in partnership with 11 local authorities to rapidly clean up antisocial behaviour in the community. The pilots started in July 2023, and we are in the process of analysing the outcomes. Initial observations point to the pilots having been successful, with thousands of hours of reparative work being done by hundreds of people on probation within 48 hours of local authority notification, allowing the public to see justice done.

These rapid-deployment community payback scheme pilots were supposed to pave the way for the accelerated roll-out of exactly the kind of swift, transparent restorative justice that victims of crime in my constituency are desperate to see. Unfortunately, I understand that, of a planned 20,000 hours of work, only 2,000 hours have been delivered by the pilots. Can the Minister reveal whether that is the case? If so, what can be learned from the clear barriers to success?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, but the clue is in the word “pilot.” These pilots were carried out in 11 areas, over three months, in the run-up to Christmas, and 175 people completed around 2,000 hours of unpaid work. We are analysing the outcome of those pilots and, based on what that analysis says, I look forward to exploring how we can roll this out more widely across the country.

Time Spent in Cells: Reoffending Rates

6. What assessment he has made of the potential impact of the length of time that prisoners spend in their cells on reoffending rates. (901581)

12. What assessment he has made of the potential impact of the length of time that prisoners spend in their cells on reoffending rates. (901588)

We know that activities such as education and training can help to give prisoners skills that they need to get a job on release, thus reducing the likelihood of reoffending. That is why we launched our new national regime model for prisoners last month. It sets out core expectations for regime delivery, so that prisons are getting the most out of the working day and aiding the rehabilitation of prisoners. Of course, we are also seeing improved staffing numbers to facilitate those regimes.

Reoffending costs £18 billion a year, but there is not just the financial cost but the impact on society in general, as well as on the individual. Some young prisoners are still getting only one hour out of their cells, so there is no time for rehabilitation—they can perhaps do a little exercise, but that is not the same. How confident is the Minister that all young prisoners will get the re-education that he has outlined? When does he think all young prisoners—if these people have to be in prison—will get proper rehabilitation and the support they need when they come out of prison to get a home, to have somewhere to stay and to go into further training? Will he please give me some reassurance that better times are coming, not just for young offenders but for society as a whole?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that. As she knows, I have a huge amount of respect for her, and she raises a hugely important point. We have heard from the Lord Chancellor that reoffending rates have come down from 31% to 25% since 2010. So we are making progress, but we want to drive them down further. She also rightly highlights the importance of purposeful activity leading to the opportunity on release for employment, accommodation and so on. That is central to the opportunity for prisoners to rehabilitate themselves.

We have seen significant progress made in our youth estate. The hon. Lady talked about young prisoners and rightly said that we need to go further, but we believe the national regime model that we launched in January will go a long way to doing that. The additional staff we have recruited into His Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service are central to doing that, as they enable that regime to be put in place. However, she is absolutely right to highlight this issue.

I welcome the Minister’s acknow-ledgement that more education in prisons means cutting the reoffending rate and that clear link to crime. I welcome the national regime model and will be interested to see how it plays out, because I have seen chronic staff shortages and sickness absence, in particular at prisons such as HMP Wandsworth, which I have visited. Those things mean that prisoners are entirely missing out on any education, training and working opportunities. When will I be able to go back to HMP Wandsworth and see the increase in staff and retention that is needed there? When will the Government get a grip on the prison officer recruitment and retention crisis?

Again, I have a lot of respect for the hon. Lady, but I am afraid that what she is suggesting does not entirely reflect the facts. If we compare the figures for 2023 and 2022 for band 3 to 5 prison officers, we see that there are over 1,400 more now, which is an increase of 6.7%. In HMPPS, sick rates are down in the past year, when just over 12,500 people joined and 7,500 left—again, that reflects an increase. We are investing in our prison officers and increasing their number, and that is being reflected in retention. I pay tribute to them for the work they do; we should be talking them up, not down.

I am encouraged by my right hon. Friend’s comments about the number of additional prison officers recruited. I have seen many of them and the fantastic work they do, both at HMP Aylesbury and across the prison estate. Will he say a little more about how we can ensure that we retain them once they have been trained and they go on to the wings? This is an incredibly important career—it is key to reducing reoffending—and prison officers deserve credit and the support of everybody in this House.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that. He is absolutely right about the importance of not just recruiting new prison officers, but retaining experienced ones in our prisons. That is why the pay deal done last year with HMPPS staff was hugely important, in recognising the important work that prison officers do day in, day out. It is also reflected in the fact that the leaving rate for prison officers is down in 2023 from where it was in 2022. However, there is more to do and we will continue to do it.

Prisoners are spending up to 23 hours a day locked up in their cells as a direct result of overcrowding and the prisons capacity crisis caused by this Government. However, I hear congratulations are in order following an announcement last month, not on the Government actually delivering any of the new prisons they have promised or on even getting spades in the ground, but on their submitting yet another planning application for the Leicestershire prison that the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities has already ruled on once. Is not about time that the Minister renamed the new prisons programme the no prisons programme?

For a moment I thought the shadow Justice Secretary was referring to her own party’s record when in government—7,500 prison places in three Titan prisons that failed to be built, whereas we are committed to building six new modern prisons. Two have been built, one is being built at the moment and two have planning permission.

While prisoners are serving their sentence, they are not being allowed to leave their cell, but ironically the Government are also releasing some of them early. Despite a multitude of letters, questions and even a point-blank request from the Justice Committee, the Government are refusing to tell us how many prisoners are being released early and from where. The public and Parliament have a right to know, so will the Minister finally come clean on how the early release scheme has been used so far? If not, can he tell the House what he has to hide?

As the shadow Justice Secretary will know, my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor has made clear that in line with other statistics, for example death in custody statistics, we will publish those figures on an annual basis.

I am sure my right hon. Friend will agree with me that the rehabilitation of offenders can be greatly assisted by activity and work outdoors, in particular on farms and at horticultural establishments. Will the Minister reassure me that he is committed to increasing the quantity of work available outdoors and let me know what has happened to the prison estates in recent years?

My hon. Friend is right to highlight the importance of a range of purposeful activity for those in prison, from skilled industrial work in workshops to outside work. A good example mentioned recently on “ITV Racing”, of all things, was about getting farriers and those working in the equine world into prisons—the example was a prison in Solihull—to teach prisoners about job opportunities in the equine world. There are a range of opportunities out there, and it is important that they are available to those in our custody.

Crown Court Backlog

We remain committed to reducing the Crown court outstanding case load and have introduced a range of measures to achieve the same. We funded over 100,000 sitting days last year and plan to deliver the same again this year. We have recruited over 1,000 judges over all jurisdictions and plan to do the same again this year. Thanks to the intervention of the Lord Chancellor, we have secured £220 million for essential modernisation repair work over the next two years. As well as retaining Nightingale courts, the investments will also see 58 new courtrooms.

The fact is that the Crown courts how have a backlog of over 65,000 cases. If that is not bad enough, experts say the courts’ capacity to deal with processing cases will not keep pace with demand. Does the Minister agree that that leads to too many victims unfortunately giving up on our justice system?

No, I do not accept that that means we are giving up on the system. The Government continue to invest in every single lever that we can pull to increase capacity in our criminal justice system. Given the additional work that the judiciary is doing, the disposal rate in our Crown courts is up and we are seeing record levels of disposals, so we will start to see the criminal justice system heal, because we are still recovering from covid and the Criminal Bar Association strike.

Rape and serious sexual assault cases have increased to 10.3% of all Crown court cases and, with nearly 10,000 of them, they make up one in seven of the backlog. The average wait time for a trial after charge has risen to 18 months. We also know from the Criminal Bar Association that there has been a tenfold increase in adjourned cases due to the fall in the number of rape and serious sexual offence prosecution or defence barristers, with the Crown Prosecution Service now employing King’s counsel to fill the gap. Add to that the many legal aid deserts due to the shortage of solicitors and we have a major staffing crisis across the criminal justice system. How is that going to be fixed?

First, the figure that the hon. Gentleman quoted for the average time for a RASSO case is simply not true. The Government have continued to invest in ensuring that RASSO cases are brought forward. Listing is a matter for the judiciary, and they take great care to ensure that vulnerable victims are dealt with expeditiously. In addition, we continue to invest in the legal aid system. The Lord Chancellor recently increased the fees to ensure that there are people able to perform RASSO cases and section 28 video recording. On top of that, we continue to engage with the criminal legal aid review to see how we can continue to invest in and incentivise criminal defence barristers in the right parts of the system.

Victims of Crime: Support

9. What steps his Department is taking through the criminal justice system to support victims of crime. (901585)

Since 2010, we have ramped up support for victims in three main ways. First, we have driven down reoffending from around 31% to 25%, so that fewer people suffer the misery of becoming a victim of crime in the first place. Secondly, we have created new offences such as stalking, coercive and controlling behaviour, revenge pornography, upskirting and non-fatal strangulation, so that those who betray trust and shatter lives can be held to account. Thirdly, we have quadrupled victim funding, enabling massive investment in resources such as independent domestic violence advisers, which are up from barely existing in 2010 to more than 900 today, and we will go further with the groundbreaking Victims and Prisoners Bill as well.

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for all the sterling work that he has just outlined, which is making such a huge difference to victims everywhere. I wish to talk about a case that was raised with me at an advice surgery. After seeing an advert on the tube, my constituent—a man of very good standing—invested in what turned out to be a fraudulent company to the tune of £93,000. He was clearly a victim of crime and, mercifully, his bank reimbursed his life savings after some challenge. He did get financial restitution, but the whole experience had wider, devastating impacts. Those behind the company were registered in Serbia and, to the best of our knowledge, have never been brought to justice. As my constituent did not go through the full criminal justice system, may I ask how victims such as he can be supported in cases like this?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising her constituent’s case. Fraud is a pernicious, cruel crime and it can have an appalling impact, as I know from my own experience of prosecuting for the Serious Fraud Office. To support victims in recovering lost funds, the Financial Services and Markets Act 2023 gives the Payment Systems Regulator further power to mandate reimbursement where needed, and I am glad that that took place in this case. But to bring wrongdoers to justice, prosecutors, including the CPS, the Financial Conduct Authority and the SFO, regularly co-operate with their international counterparts to make arrests and secure evidence overseas so that, in appropriate cases, defendants can be extradited to face trial in the UK. The other critical point is that the victims code has been expanded, so that people such as her constituent can get the support they need. I would invite him, perhaps through the hon. Lady’s good offices, to look at the support that is available online.

Is the Secretary of State aware of a new crime that is spreading throughout the north of England, including in your constituency, Mr Speaker, and in mine? A group is preying on people who have cavity wall insulation. Those people get themselves into the legal process and find the expenses are so high that they have to sell their home. It is an epidemic. It is also rather like the Post Office scandal. This is an early warning of a major scandal. Will the Secretary of State agree to look into this matter as it is very important, especially in the north of England?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that matter on the Floor of the House. He will understand—I know that he well appreciates this—that it is not for the Secretary of State to be ordering investigations, but, plainly, the matters he raised are serious. I invite the police and prosecutors to take all appropriate steps to investigate it if that is what is required.

Joint Enterprise: Cost of Judicial Processes

11. If he will make an estimate of the cost to the public purse of judicial processes under joint enterprise relating to violent crimes in each year since 2014. (901587)

Although the Ministry of Justice collates statistics nationally on the principal criminal offence for which a perpetrator is prosecuted, convicted or sentenced, including data on their ethnicity, it does not collate data on whether the crime that they committed was part of joint enterprise, so unfortunately I am unable to provide the information that the hon. Lady requests. However, we are considering whether such data could be collected as part of the common platform programme, which aims to provide a single case management system that would enable the sharing of such evidence and case information across the criminal justice system.

I welcome that response, but the Minister will know that Manchester Metropolitan University has recently carried out some research into the cost of prosecuting under joint enterprise. Some £250 million is spent processing joint enterprises cases, and an extra £1.2 billion is spent incarcerating the just over 1,000 people who are convicted. Those are eye-watering amounts of money, so does the Minister agree that we need to review the doctrine of joint enterprise to ensure that only those who are responsible for significant contribution to a crime are punished for it?

There is a cost to justice. People who are found guilty of crime based on the evidence presented to a court of law have been sentenced, and there is a cost to their incarceration. Simply put, the cost of incarcerating people is not a reason to review the law.

Justice: Devolution of Responsibility

15. If he will make an assessment of the potential merits of devolving responsibility for justice to the Welsh Government. (901591)

The Government are clear that it is in the best interests of the people of Wales for justice to remain a reserved matter. The current arrangement works well and allows Wales to benefit from being part of a larger, world-renowned justice system. Devolving justice to Wales would mean losing those benefits and would be extremely expensive and complex, requiring the duplication of functions.

Following the publication last month of the final report by the independent commission on the constitutional future of Wales, the First Minister of Wales confirmed unambiguously that it is the policy of the Welsh Government, and indeed of the Welsh Labour party, to support the devolution of the justice system. In pursuing the devolution of the Probation Service, he said:

“We will have to explore…governance…financial arrangements”

and the interface between Welsh and English services. When will the Minister meet the Counsel General for Wales to discuss the devolution of justice?

If the representatives for the Welsh Government wish to meet me, I am more than happy to explain why Wales being part of the English and Welsh legal system remains the preferred option for this Government. Why would Wales want to leave the most successful legal services system in the world?

Rape Victims: Privacy Rights

18. What steps his Department is taking to protect the privacy rights of rape victims in criminal justice processes. (901594)

19. What steps his Department is taking to protect the privacy rights of rape victims in criminal justice processes. (901595)

It is paramount that victims come forward without fear that their privacy will be violated. That is why we are taking steps, through the Victims and Prisoners Bill, to create a statutory restriction that limits police requests to third-party material that is necessary and proportionate, and to inform victims of why such material is being requested. The Government have also asked the Law Commission to undertake a review on the use of evidence in sexual offence prosecutions, and it is due to report later this year.

My constituent had all her counselling records used against her in a harrowing trial that she said was worse than the crime itself. Will the Victims and Prisoners Bill be sufficiently amended so that medical and social services records are not used against victims in court, and family courts are not used to perpetuate such abuse against the victim, particularly with the use of the term “parental alienation”?

I am truly sorry to hear of what happened to the hon. Lady’s constituent. I hope that I can reassure her by saying that new regulations will be published under the Victims and Prisoners Bill to create a code of practice setting out the principles that the police should apply to all third-party requests, including for counselling, therapy and medical notes. The police will be required to complete a new request form that sets out the purpose and impact of their request. The Crown Prosecution Service also has a robust case file review process to ensure that guidance on necessary and proportionate requests is complied with. The CPS pre-trial therapy guidelines make it crystal clear that victims must not delay therapy for criminal investigation and prosecution.

Recently, I was able to visit the Gwent rape investigation unit and see what an excellent job the police officers there are doing. However, can the Minister explain why the Government thought it was appropriate to boast about the so-called progress on the rape review when the proportion of cases being charged has halved since 2016, and the key adviser quit because of the lack of drive to improve outcomes for victims?

I have also heard very good reports of the work that Gwent police are doing, so I am glad to hear what the hon. Lady says. I must push back very slightly on what has happened since we launched the end-to-end rape review. We are prosecuting more rape cases than we were in 2010. Conviction rates are higher, and perpetrators are going to prison for almost 50% longer than they were in 2010; the average sentence increased from six and a half years to nine and a half years. I accept that the last independent adviser to the rape review went, but last week we announced the appointment of Professor Katrin Hohl, a legal academic who pioneered Operation Soteria, which I think every Member of this House agrees has transformed the way in which police investigate and prosecute rape, and is leading to better criminal justice outcomes for victims.

Non-disclosure Agreements

20. What discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the use of non-disclosure agreements in judicial processes. (901596)

Non-disclosure agreements cannot prevent any disclosure that is required or protected by law; nor can they preclude an individual from asserting statutory rights. The courts and judiciary apply the law in relation to NDAs as appropriate in individual cases and, where necessary, determine whether or not they should be enforceable.

Last year, the Legal Services Board stated that incidents of misconduct by lawyers dealing with non-disclosure agreements were a “cause for concern”, and that there was a strong case for a strengthened and harmonised regulatory approach. Does the Minister agree that there is a need for stronger regulation in this area, and will he support the Bill tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran), which would end the misuse of non-disclosure agreements in the workplace?

I am more than happy to have a discussion with the hon. Lady, but my understanding is that the Solicitors Regulation Authority has already published a warning notice reminding solicitors and law firms that potential professional misconduct by a person or a firm should be reported to the regulator. If she believes that there are still gaps in that warning notice, or that more needs to be done, I am more than happy to have a meeting.

Topical Questions

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.