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Volume 747: debated on Tuesday 26 March 2024

The Secretary of State was asked—

Sentencing: Dangerous Offenders

To govern is to choose. Choices we have made mean that the most dangerous offenders—the acid attackers, the rapists, the knife-point robbers—who are sentenced to seven years or more are required to spend longer in custody. The Sentencing Bill goes further: murders involving sexual or sadistic conduct will lead to a whole-life order unless there are exceptional circumstances, and those convicted of the most serious sexual offences, including rape, will serve 100% of their custodial term in prison.

I welcome the measures that my right hon. and learned Friend has outlined, as will my East Devon constituents. Rapists deserve the most severe possible custodial sentences. Will he update the House on how sentence lengths have been increased for that utterly vile crime since 2010?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that rape is an appalling crime. In 2010, the average custodial sentence for adult rape was six and a half years, and prison governors were required to release offenders at the halfway mark. Today, the average sentence is over 40% longer, and offenders serving more than four years must serve two thirds of that sentence behind bars. As I say, we are going further still.

For all the positive words from the Secretary of State, the reality in our prisons is that people are being sent out, and the prison estate has not kept pace with the rhetoric that we hear from the Government. The Government are constantly sending criminals on to our streets because they do not have the prison facilities to house them. Is not the reality that we need fewer fine words and more action from the Government to keep our streets safe?

That is not a fair characterisation. The capacity in our estate is much greater than when we inherited it—that is point one. Point two is that we have kick-started the largest prison expansion since the Victorian era: £4 billion has been allocated, and we have opened His Majesty’s Prison Fosse Way and HMP Five Wells. HMP Millsike will open next year; we have planning permission for Gartree and Grendon Springhill, and we also have more spaces—rapid deployment cells and so on—coming on at Liverpool, Birmingham and Norwich. We believe that those who commit the most appalling crimes should be locked up for longer. As I say, it was wrong that, in 2010, rapists would be automatically released at the halfway mark. We are the Government who are putting that right.

I commend my right hon. and learned Friend for building on the work that he and I did together to ensure that the most dangerous and serious offenders spend longer behind bars. The consultation on sentencing in cases of murder concluded a few weeks ago. When can we reasonably expect a response on that sensitive and important issue?

My right hon. and learned Friend is absolutely right to say that it is a sensitive issue. As he knows from practice, those who commit the offence of murder outside, using a knife that is brought to the scene, can expect a starting point of 25 years. However, as the Gould and Devey families have made so powerfully clear, where the crime takes place inside the home, there are very difficult sentencing decisions for judges. The consultation has ended, and I pay tribute to the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Gareth Bacon), who has spoken to a number of people about it, as indeed have I. We will respond in the coming weeks, but this matter requires careful thought. I pay tribute to my right hon. and learned Friend for his work on it.

Barnaby Webber from Taunton was described by his family as an “extraordinary ordinary person”. His killer was found guilty of manslaughter, rather than murder, on the basis of being subject to paranoid schizophrenia. Barnaby’s mother, Emma Webber, says it is “abhorrent” that murder charges were not pursued against her son’s killer. Will the Secretary of State consider re-categorising homicide laws to introduce first-degree and second-degree murder?

There is nothing I could say from this Dispatch Box that would put right the horror that the poor families of Barnaby Webber, Grace O’Malley-Kumar and Ian Austin suffered in those appalling attacks from Valdo Calocane. The law of homicide has been considered greatly—in fact, as a Back Bencher, I led a debate on the issue of first-degree and second-degree murder. It is of course something that we keep under careful consideration; there is complexity to it, but it is certainly a matter that we will consider.

Cremation: Legislation

The law on cremation has been updated when needed. For example, the 2008 cremation regulations are currently being amended as part of the ongoing death certification reform. However, the primary legislation on cremation dates back to 1902, and in the light of developments since then, I believe that a more comprehensive review is needed. That is why the Law Commission has agreed to consider the law governing cremation as part of its project on burial, cremation and new funerary methods. That project has commenced, and we await its findings with interest.

I am grateful for the Minister’s answer. Obviously, given what is going on in Hull, there are great concerns. I know that the Minister cannot speak directly about that issue because of the investigation, but there is no formal regulation of funeral directors on these issues. Joseph Barsby, the managing director at G. Seller—a much-loved local funeral director that is at the forefront of funeral facilities in Hinckley—is very concerned, because G. Seller wants to lead, not be tarnished by being sucked into problems in the industry. Will the Minister meet with Joseph to discuss ways in which we can improve the system? Failing that, will there be a way for funeral directors to feed in information and ideas on how to improve the system?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. The Department has already started work on a call for evidence on where we go with the regulation of the funeral director sector; that will be issued shortly. I am more than happy to ensure that the views of any funeral director are fed in, and, of course, to meet with the firm in his constituency.

I thank the Minister for the productive and supportive way that he has engaged with me on the appalling situation with Legacy funeral directors in Hull. I am utterly committed to regulating this industry and never again allowing that appalling, heartbreaking situation to be repeated. I have heard the Minister’s response to the hon. Member for Bosworth (Dr Evans), but could he speak a little bit more about timeframes? Does he agree that in the interval before statutory regulation comes in, we should encourage all funeral directors to subject themselves to voluntary regulation by one of the trade bodies, and to do everything they can to reassure the public that not all funeral directors are in a situation like the appalling situation that we have had in my constituency?

If I may return the compliment, the hon. Lady has handled this appalling incident in her constituency with a great deal of skill. I am committed to working with her and the Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare), who is leading on some of the initial responses, alongside the local authority. The call for evidence on where we go on regulation will commence in the next few months; the decision, of course, will have to wait for the public consultation. This afternoon, I am meeting the two major trade bodies to discuss how they can assist with voluntary inspections, to ensure that after this terrible incident—what has been happening is quite horrific—which nobody thought could occur, we get this right, so that people have confidence in the vast majority of funeral directors, who are entirely respectable and treat the deceased with the respect and care that we would expect.

Reducing Reoffending

Reducing reoffending is a core mission of this Government. That is why, for example, we rolled out the genuinely transformational policy of 12 weeks’ guaranteed accommodation for offenders on release, and it is why we have invested heavily in employment; there are prison employment leads in every resettlement prison. The plan is working: the reoffending rate has fallen significantly since 2010, from 31% to 25%, and in the two years to March 2023, the proportion of prison leavers in employment six months after release more than doubled.

I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend for his answer. He may be aware that the Welsh Affairs Committee has recently heard from businesses such as Timpson and Williams Homes about the work being done to train and recruit prisoners in Wales. While there was a lot of praise for the New Futures Network, which brokers partnerships between employers and prisons, what is being done to expand the number of release on temporary licence schemes? As we have heard, they are really important for improving employability and giving prisoners a better chance of holding down a job when they get out of the gate.

I thank my right hon. Friend for the interest he is showing in this issue. He is absolutely right to pay tribute to the New Futures Network, which does exceptional work in custody. Of course, it is very often able to liaise with employment advisory boards—local business people in the area—to ensure that prisoners are trained in the skills that they need for jobs in that area. When I went to HMP Berwyn, which is of course in Wales, one of the things that I was so impressed by is that its employment hub has a video suite, so that prisoners can be interviewed by employers on the outside. On my right hon. Friend’s point about ROTL, that is something that prison governors keep under review. Certainly in the right cases, where ROTL is safe for the public, it can be a useful tool to ensure that prisoners are rehabilitated and get into work, so that they can be law-abiding citizens in the future.

The Secretary of State will know that one of the ways to reduce reoffending is to break the cycle of drug misuse. The problem of course is that in too many prisons there is a high incidence of drugs getting in, so what is he doing to reduce the amount of drugs in our prisons?

The hon. Member is right: it is of course really important that we tackle drugs coming into prisons. We have rolled out £100 million in prison gate security, to ensure that there is airport-style security. There are scanners, including body scanners with very high resolution, so that people coming into jails can be scanned for illicit contraband that may be being transported internally; that is important. We are also rolling out additional technology that can scan mail for psychoactive substances impregnated into the paper. That is just one of a suite of measures that we are taking—plus there are the drug abstinence wings.

May I take this opportunity to say that I misspoke earlier? Ian Coates was the third victim of the Nottingham attacks.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I welcome my right hon. and learned Friend’s comments about the progress made on tackling reoffending, but he will be aware that it remains stubbornly high. We are in an unfortunate position: we imprison more people than most of our neighbours in Europe, but still have higher rates of reoffending. Does that not posit the fact that we need to make more intelligent use of prison, and of alternatives to custody, as parts of a joined-up system? Would he agree that the Sentencing Bill is particularly valuable in this regard, and can we hope for its swift return to the House?

I thank my hon. and learned Friend for his excellent point. He says something with which I passionately agree: strip out the emotion and follow the evidence. The evidence shows that there are tools available to this generation of politicians that were not necessarily available 10 or 15 years ago. I am talking not just about GPS tags, which we have doubled, but alcohol tags, with which there is a 97% compliance rate. The reoffending rate among those who live with the sword of Damocles hanging over them can be much lower than for those who spend a short time in custody.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. You are never going to let me forget about my birthday.

I very much thank the Secretary of State for his answers, and for his very clear commitment to physical and skills training. The other important issue is education. If we keep people’s minds and bodies active, they will not wish to offend when they leave prison, so what is being done to help, educationally? Will the Secretary of State share the ideas he clearly has with the equivalent Minister in Northern Ireland?

Absolutely. Importantly, we are rolling out a prison education service, with a considerable sum of money—about £150 million a year, which is significant. However, it is critical to have tie-up between the local employment advisory boards, liaising with the governor, and the New Futures Network to ensure that the education provided is tailored to the jobs on the outside. People are being assisted with literacy, for example, so that they can do jobs in hospitality, kitchens or horticulture. Education works when it is tailored to job opportunities on the outside. That is how we get prisoners motivated and engaged—and yes, I am happy to engage in the way that the hon. Member proposes.

Lasting Power of Attorney Agreements

When an LPA application is submitted, there is a statutory four-week waiting period before the LPA can be registered, during which objections can be lodged. As for registered LPAs, any concerns about an attorney abusing one can be reported to the Office of the Public Guardian, which will investigate. As part of the modernisation of LPAs following the passage of the Powers of Attorney Act 2023, new identity verification processes will be introduced to further strengthen the system.

More than 6 million people in Britain have lasting power of attorney agreements. I have been inundated recently with so many harrowing stories from across the country of abusers targeting elderly people and stealing their estate from under their nose. Will the Minister ensure that a proper medical assessment is carried out before an LPA is activated, and that the digitisation of LPAs does not lead to families losing their loved one’s estate to unscrupulous abusers?

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, and I am more than happy to take that away and write to him about the steps we take to ensure that that level of check is in place. I reassure the House that people can check the “use a lasting power of attorney” service on to see where LPAs have been issued, and whether one has been issued without their knowledge.

Secure Youth Estate: Violence

The number of children in custody has fallen by nearly 70% in the last decade, but that means that those in custody are more complex; 71% of them are detained for violent offences. Although the rate of prisoner-on-prisoner assaults declined by 7% between July and September 2023, compared with the same period in 2022, the rate of assaults on staff increased. That is why all sites have a safety strategy reflecting local drivers of violence. That includes tackling the use of weapons, and training staff in conflict resolution. Much has been done, but there continues to be more to do, and we remain focused on doing it.

Those strategies are clearly not working. There were 320 assaults on staff between July and September 2023, of which 24 were serious. That is a 9% increase, year on year, in assaults in the children and young people’s estate. When will the Minister put in place a proper plan to cut violence in the youth estate and keep staff safe?

The plan we have put in place is working, but there is more to do. The hon. Gentleman highlighted statistics that, as he will accept, I acknowledged from the Dispatch Box. We believe that our approach to tackling violence and to conflict resolution in our youth estate is right, and we will continue to press forward with it to reduce rates of assault on our hard-working and dedicated prison officers and staff.

The Government have decided to change the use of Cookham Wood youth offender institution to an adult prison. That follows a lack of progress in improving young people’s access to education, and increased violence on the prison estate. The behaviour management method of keeping young people in their cells has failed. This decision puts a spotlight on the wider crisis in adult prisons. When the young people are transferred, how will the Minister ensure that the practice of keeping them in their cells, and the cycle of violence, will end?

I am grateful to the shadow Minister for her question about Cookham Wood. As she will be aware, a number of specific local factors at work in Cookham Wood led to the urgent notification, and the challenges in addressing that. As for those young people and their transfer to other institutions, a number of them will be released before Cookham Wood closes. Those still in custody will be assessed individually, and they and their families will be engaged with to ensure that they are placed in institutions that are best suited to their needs, and that give them the greatest opportunity to progress and make positive life choices for when they are released.

It is a shame that the Minister did not address the violence specifically. Violence is a challenge across the youth estate, not just at Cookham Wood. Recently, a girl with challenging behaviours and complex needs at Wetherby YOI was restrained and then stripped—not once, but twice—by male officers. In the context of rising violence and extreme self-harm, does the Minister believe that is acceptable, and what alternative provision does he have in mind other than the Keppel unit in Wetherby YOI?

I did address the point about violence on the estate in response to the original question from the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty). The hon. Lady asked specifically about a case highlighted by the chief inspector of prisons in his recent report.What happened there was clearly against policy. It was clearly wrong and concerning, but I do have to correct her: the individual involved was at no point strip-searched. That was inaccurate reporting. At all times, the modesty of the individual was protected with a blanket, so I am afraid that what was said in reporting that it was a strip search is not correct. Clothes were removed under a blanket in order to protect life where there was imminent risk to it. Those officers made a difficult decision in the circumstances to protect life. It is right that we look into the specifics of what happened, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor and I have done. I think we just need to be a little cautious at this point about accepting everything that was reported as fact.

Violence against Prison Officers

6. What recent assessment he has made of trends in the level of violence against prison officers. (902201)

All assaults on prison staff are utterly unacceptable. That is why we have taken steps to protect our staff. I put on record something that I suspect those on both sides of the House share, which is our gratitude to all those who work in our prisons. To protect staff, we have rolled out PAVA—pelargonic acid vanillylamide—spray in adult male prisons, and body-worn video cameras. The maximum penalty for those who assault prison officers has been doubled, and we have completed our £100 million security investment programme to clamp down on the illicit items that fuel prison violence. The rate of assaults on staff in the 12 months to September 2023 was 10% lower than in the 12 months to September 2019—before the pandemic—but it is still far too high.

I know the Minister cares about this issue and wants to see solutions for how we protect prison officers across the prison estate, but according to the Prison Officers Association and the Community union, serious offences against prison officers are up 10% on last year. Some 750 of those assaults are deemed to be serious, and 23 attacks are being recorded every day on the prison estate across England and Wales. There are huge concerns about overcrowding. The level of prison officers is 10% lower than in 2010. It is positive to hear the Secretary of State talking about opening new prisons, but if there are no prison officers to work there, how will we resolve these issues? More worryingly, prison officers are taking to the media to say that they are frightened for their lives to work on the prison estate. I do not think the plan is working. I believe the Minister wants to fix it, but what is the next plan to resolve things and ensure that prison officers remain safe on our prison estate?

No one, in any walk of life, should be in fear of assault at work, and that obviously includes dedicated prison officers. I have already highlighted the steps we are taking to tackle some of the root causes of that violence. We have the £100 million security measures to tackle illicit drugs and mobile phones—the sorts of things that fuel the violence—and the ability to deploy PAVA spray. The hon. Gentleman rightly highlights the importance in this context of the number of prison officers. That is why I am pleased that in the latest statistics published at the end of last year, numbers are up by 1,500, and retention rates are improving, too.

Victims of Domestic Violence: Court Proceedings

7. What steps his Department is taking to help ensure that victims of domestic violence are protected throughout court proceedings. (902202)

The Domestic Abuse Act 2021 was transformative with the protections it gave to domestic abuse victims through the justice system. To give just a few examples, up-front legal aid is available to all domestic abuse victims seeking a protective order, without having to establish evidence of abuse. Our upcoming legal aid means test review will significantly increase eligibility and exclude disputed assets, such as the marital home, from consideration. Perpetrators are prohibited from cross-examining their victims, and victims are entitled to the support of an independent domestic violence adviser throughout the process.

My office has recently assisted with several cases regarding the use of court proceedings involving victims of domestic abuse. In many cases, family issues are going straight to trial without any mediation, which causes far more trauma for all parties concerned. Can the Minister assure me that we will always place the victim at the forefront of court proceedings in these circumstances?

It is specifically to address that issue that we commissioned our harms panel, which conducted excellent work, as a result of which the Ministry of Justice has conducted a pilot of pathfinder courts in Dorset and north Wales focused on preventing exactly this issue. Those courts have focused on creating a less adversarial system where domestic abuse allegations are investigated and resolved at an early stage without being intensified through the court. My hon. Friend will be glad to hear that so successful has the pilot been that it will now be rolled out on a national basis, starting next month with courts in south-east Wales and in Birmingham.

In 2023, 67,938 rapes were recorded by the police, but there were just 2,008 rape convictions. It is well documented that there is not enough support for rape victims through the court process. The use of counselling notes has a chilling effect, and the long waits for their case to go to trial have an intense impact on survivors, often causing them to withdraw. What will the Minister do to ensure that victims and survivors are supported throughout the court process?

It is not in dispute that rape is the most serious offence a person can experience that is not homicide. It is as a result of the implementation of the end-to-end rape review that we started Operation Soteria through the police forces. That has not just improved rape prosecutions; some forces are referring quadruple the volume of cases to the Crown Prosecution Service that they were once before, and overall prosecutions have more than doubled. We have close to 1,000 independent sexual violence advisers working in the system, holding a victim’s hand from the minute they go to the police to the conclusion of the process. I met some in Hatfield last month, who told me that victims had told them they had only stayed in the process because of that support. It is night and day from where it was in 2010. We review the outcome of the rape review every quarter, and the curve is going upwards, so of course it is a crucial issue, but one on which significant improvement is being made on every single matrix.

Domestic abuse has no place in modern society or any society. What work is happening to ensure that victims of domestic abuse are supported throughout the entire process? We have a fantastic organisation in Watford called Watford Women’s Centre, which helps many abuse victims, but what are the Government doing to ensure that victims are supported throughout and that the perpetrators are taken to court and justice is served?

I thank my hon. Friend for his excellent question. I give him a similar answer to the one I gave the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion). One thing that has been transformative in victim support is the provision of not just independent sexual violence advisers, but independent domestic abuse advisers. Again, there are nearly 1,000 advisers in the system helping victims every step of the way. One thing that I am most excited about in this challenging area of the law is the pilot launching next month for domestic abuse protection orders, which will give police or victims the ability to go to the magistrates court or the family court to seek a blend of measures, whether that is a non-molestation order, an occupation order or a stalking protection order, and create positive obligations on the perpetrator, whether that is on alcohol abuse or through the perpetrator programme. There is a comprehensive package of support for domestic abuse victims.

In Scotland, victims of rape and serious sexual assault are now able to access free court transcripts. The project will give victims free access to transcripts that previously would have cost thousands of pounds. However, the UK Government refuse to match the scheme and are only committing to a one-year pilot scheme, in which free copies of sentencing remarks will be made available to victims of serious crime. That is not good enough. It fails victims like my constituent, Juliana Terlizzi, who was charged over £7,000 to read the transcript of her rapist’s trial. Ahead of Report stage of the Victims and Prisoners Bill in the other place next month, will the Justice Secretary meet Juliana and me to discuss matching the Scottish scheme, which will help get victims the justice they deserve?

I reassure the hon. Lady that the Courts Minister has said that he will meet her to discuss the matter. She will know that the cost of transcription for a full trial can be as high as £20,000, but the power and impact of any trial, where there has been a conviction, is in the judge’s sentencing remarks at the end, in seeing everything, and society’s opprobrium is expressed through the voice of the judge. That is why we are conducting a pilot for free sentencing remarks in all those cases.

Children in Care: Family Courts

8. What assessment he has made of the impact of delays in the family courts on children who have been taken into care. (902203)

Delays in decision making during care proceedings can have a significant impact on children, and we recognise that there is more to do to address that challenge. That is why last year the Government published their response to the independent review of children’s social care, setting out a programme of action to achieve better outcomes. The Department for Education is investing an extra £10 million on new initiatives to address the longest delays and meet the statutory requirement to resolve proceedings within 26 weeks.

Data from Cafcass shows that children who have been removed from their parents by the state have to wait an average of 46 weeks to get a final decision on where they will live. That is heartbreaking. What assessment has the Minister made of the impact of extended family proceedings on the mental health of the children involved and their ability to access support and child and adolescent mental health services?

The hon. Lady raises a very serious point. The impact on the child and the wider family is appreciated. We have invested in capacity, with more money for Cafcass, judges and recorders, and more sitting days to ensure that we increase capacity so that hearings can be heard effectively. We are also focusing on the public law outline, which sets a maximum number of hearings and the time limits, to ensure that proceedings are heard on time. If the hon. Lady wishes to raise any specific cases, I will be happy to meet her to get to the bottom of any specific problems.

Despite the response given to my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi), the Government are still a long way from solving the crisis in the family courts. We have heard of the 46-week average, but in 13 of the 42 designated family judge areas in England and Wales, the wait is double the statutory target of 26 weeks. Then, there are the 80,000 private family law cases that can take 45 weeks to be resolved, and the number of new cases is increasing faster than disposals. Do the Government have any concern or compassion for some of the most vulnerable children in the country who are being let down? I invite the Minister to try again and assure the House that the crisis will not get even worse.

If there is a lever that I have not pulled, I invite the shadow Minister to let me know what it is, and I will address it. This Government are spending more money on attracting more judges and recorders, maximising sitting days and investing in the public law outline and, on the flip side of public family law, on private family law as well as mediation. We are investing an extra £55 million, as announced in the Budget, to address productivity and the backlogs. Every single lever that will increase capacity and productivity is being pulled, but I am more than happy for the hon. Member to share any insight with me, and I am sure that we can work on a better solution.

Crown Court Backlog

More than 90% of all criminal cases are resolved in the magistrates court, which includes burglaries, thefts, assaults, criminal damage and drugs offences. Thanks to magistrates’ exceptional efforts, the caseload has come down significantly from its post-pandemic peak, and cases are being heard promptly. To help bring down the caseload in the Crown court, the Government have invested heavily to allow courts to operate at full throttle. We have recruited around 1,000 judges and tribunal members across all jurisdictions this financial year. We have kept open 20 nightingale courtrooms to boost capacity, and we are on track to increase spending on criminal legal aid by more than £140 million a year.

In Yorkshire, Sheffield Crown court has been forced to shut twice in the last two years due to flooding. That is in addition to the already record-breaking court backlog across the UK of 67,000 cases. What measures have the Government put in place to deal with unplanned court closures, to ensure that people still have access to justice?

One of the first things I did when I took on this role was to extract from the Treasury an additional £80 million to go into our court maintenance fund. That is important because it allows us to plan not just reactively this year, but proactively over time. That will create more efficiencies and get us more for our money, and will mean that great courts such as those in Sheffield can continue to do the business.

How does the backlog in criminal court cases vary by region? What discussions has the Secretary of State had with local judicial teams on prioritising and communicating those backlogs?

The senior presiding judge will keep a close eye on regional discrepancies. In certain cases, there is the power to transfer them from one court to another, but that will depend on the suitability for defendants, and witnesses and victims who need to attend hearings. It is important that we send the message from this Chamber that more than 90% of all criminal trials—the cases that people want resolved such as criminal damage, drugs matters and common assault—are dealt with in magistrates courts, and magistrates up and down our country are doing an excellent job at getting through those cases.

I absolutely endorse the Lord Chancellor’s comments on magistrates working incredibly hard to clear backlogs in courts. He will have seen recent journalistic reporting relating to single justice procedure, which is an important element of magistrates’ work. The principle behind the single justice procedure is good, and I have sat on cases in SJP courts, but there are some concerns, in particular around vulnerable individuals who may have mitigation that is not necessarily being addressed. Does he agree that perhaps he could remind Members that magistrates can already use their discretion to refer cases back to open court, where prosecutors can review cases to ensure that individuals who are vulnerable are not served with un-justice?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend and his colleagues for the exceptional work they do to ensure that justice is done. On the single justice procedure, fairness is non-negotiable, so it is critical that every person who comes before the courts, whether via the SJP or an open court, gets that fairness. There is an issue about transparency. Some important points on that have been raised, and echoed by the Chair of the Justice Committee, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill). It is something that we ought to consider recalibrating. Everyone accepts that the SJP works well and is a useful addition. We just need to see whether it ought to be refined in the interests of promoting transparency.

End of Custody Supervised Licence

11. How many prisoners have been released early under the end of custody supervised licence scheme since October 2023. (902208)

End of custody supervised licence began in October 2023. Analysis of and statistics on its use will be based on one year’s worth of data and published on an annualised basis in line with other statistics, such as deaths of offenders in the community. We consider that to be the appropriate approach.

Earlier this month, the Chair of the Justice Committee, the hon. and learned Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill), who is in his place, said that prisons are at “bursting point”, while the Prison Governors’ Association said that without the extension of the ECSL scheme, our criminal justice system

“may have ground to a halt”.

Meanwhile, the Domestic Abuse Commissioner labelled the plans as

“dangerous to domestic abuse victims”.

Is the Minister satisfied that the scheme manages the prison population while keeping the victims of crime safe? If so, when will he release data about which prisoners have been released?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. There are a number of points there. The ECSL is a response to, yes, acute capacity challenges, but it is a targeted scheme operating in prisons as required and where necessary. I gently say to him that a similar scheme ran from 2007 to 2010. In that case, it bore significant differences to what is happening now. ECSL, as operating now, contains a range of important safeguards that were simply not in place between 2007 and 2010. The 2007-10 scheme released some people straight into the community without any supervision and led to the early release of some prisoners convicted of terror offences. This scheme is totally different. It plays a role in managing the prison capacity challenges, but it has those important safeguards in place to protect victims and society.

Our prisons are full, so much so that the Government are sanctioning the early release of inmates to make space. At what point will we prioritise the deportation of foreign criminals who are taking up one in nine of our prison cells, so that we can get back to zero-tolerance policing and ensure that no crime is too small to go unpunished?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, because she is quite right to highlight that a key element of tackling the prison capacity crisis is sending back, through deportation, foreign national offenders. She will be reassured that 18,000 have been deported in the past four years and we continue to drive that target ever higher.

It is telling that the Minister is refusing to come clean with the public on how many prisoners are being released early under the scheme. As we know, the public are overwhelmingly in favour of an early release scheme if it were applied to his colleagues in a general election. [Laughter.] Does he have any intention, before that happy day, of releasing the truth about how many prisoners are being let out early?

It is always a pleasure to face the gentle barbs of the hon. Gentleman, whom I have known for a long time. As I have made very clear on a previous occasion in the House, and indeed just a few moments ago, we consider that an annualised publication of these statistics is the most appropriate approach, in line with the publication of similar statistics such as those relating to deaths of offenders in the community.

Legal Aid: Immigration Cases

12. What assessment his Department has made of the adequacy of legal aid for immigration cases. (902209)

The Legal Aid Agency monitors the provision of immigration legal aid and takes whatever actions are operationally available to it to ensure a supply of providers.

I was hoping for an answer but did not get one, so let me try this. While we all desperately want to see the Tories’ asylum backlog cleared, this effort must be well funded and must ensure access to justice. What we have instead is an under-resourced bureaucracy and a push to make rushed asylum decisions, combined with severe difficulty in accessing immigration legal aid, and as a result thousands of asylum seekers have effectively been denied the right to legal representation. Why do the UK Government stand alone in not recognising the enormous crisis in immigration legal aid?

In fact, the Government spent £44 million on immigration legal aid in 2022-23. We have increased the hourly rate for those undertaking this kind of work, and we are looking at remote access and payment for travelling. All those steps we have taken to raise the level of funding in this important area. I have to say, however, that I think it takes a particular bit of brass neck for the SNP to lecture us on the funding of legal aid. I refer the hon. Gentleman to, which has commented on how the SNP has decimated legal aid in Scotland.

Perhaps the Minister can answer this question. The Bar Council has repeatedly highlighted the fact that asylum claimants who have otherwise meritorious cases have often gone through multiple appeals due to very poor or no legal representation. That jacks up the costs for the courts, the Home Office and local authorities, all the while trapping vulnerable people in an agonising limbo. If the Government will not address the crisis in immigration legal aid because it is the right thing to do, will they at least do so because it is the financially sound thing to do?

As I have said, we are already increasing the fees for those who take on legal aid work in connection with the Illegal Migration Act 2023. That is a 15% increase on the increase that we have already seen. On top of that, we are rolling out remote access to the duty advice scheme and introducing payment for travel. Those are major steps towards ensuring the availability of legal aid. I therefore do not accept the hon. Gentleman’s description of the position. If he wants to start swapping comments from the Bar Council, I can quote the Scottish Bar Council’s views on the SNP’s record.

HMPPS Reoffending Programmes

14. What recent assessment his Department has made of the impact of outcomes data from the Justice Data Lab on the recommissioning of HM Prison and Probation Service reoffending programmes in the last 12 months. (902211)

Reducing reoffending is a core mission of this Government. As my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor said in an earlier answer, we act on the basis not of emotion but of evidence, deploying a series of carefully researched interventions from the prison employment leads to the provision of 12 weeks of accommodation post release. That is why the reoffending rate has decreased from 31% to 25% since 2010. The Justice Data Lab makes an important contribution by providing HMPPS and external organisations with a robust assessment of whether their interventions work, and we will continue to consider their work carefully.

I welcome the adherence to an evidence-based approach to working out whether or not these various programmes work effectively, but may I urge Ministers to go even further by ensuring that every programme we currently commission is reassessed on the basis of outcomes, and then not recommissioned unless those outcomes measure up?

I can confirm that the Government will continue to base our investment decisions to reduce reoffending on the best available evidence at the time. We are continuously improving our evidence base, for instance through the cross-governmental Better Outcomes through Linked Data programme.

Topical Questions

Since the last session of Justice questions I have visited HMP Liverpool, a prison that received a poor inspection report some years ago, and I saw how it had been transformed. Prisoners were engaged in constructive activity in the cycle repair workshop and elsewhere, cells had been refurbished, and there was a clear sense of pride among prison officers, who were determined to deliver safety, decency and rehabilitation. Prisons as well as prisoners, it seems, can be redeemed. I have also visited Liverpool Crown court to see our “intensive supervision courts” in action, tackling the root causes of offending with treatment for addictions. In Coventry I saw rapid deployment teams of offenders who had been sentenced to carrying out unpaid work clearing up local neighbourhoods, visibly atoning for their crimes, and doing so within 48 hours of the project being nominated by the public.

I was pleased to support the important Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation Bill, promoted by the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David), which is intended to tackle abusive and chilling lawsuits. We have also brought forward legislation on litigation funding agreements to ensure that third parties can continue to fund court proceedings on behalf of individuals or small businesses. That support enabled the sub-postmasters to make their successful civil claim. Our legislation will bolster access to justice, boost our legal sector, and ensure that in our courts David can still take on Goliath.

The Government have achieved only 5,900 of the promised 20,000 new prison places, resulting in them having to release prisoners up to 60 days early to alleviate overcrowding, thereby directly impacting on public safety. How does the Secretary of State reconcile this with the Conservative promise of being tough on crime, especially when his end-of-custody supervised licensing scheme expansion significantly deviates from judicial sentencing?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. When I was in practice, I had to listen to the then Labour Home Secretary say that he was going to cancel the three Titan prisons that he had boasted he would open. Not one was built. We have opened Five Wells and Fosse Way, and Millsike is under construction. We have more cells coming online in Birmingham, Liverpool and Norwich. We have rapid deployment cells, and we have new houseblocks in Guys Marsh, Rye Hill and Hatfield. This is the party that is delivering. We will be tough on crime.

May I gently say that there a lot of people I need to get in? If we could shorten the answers, that would be helpful.

T3. I recently met my constituent David Winnett, who is a family law solicitor and a member of Resolution. He told me about Resolution’s vision for family justice. I wonder whether my right hon. and learned Friend is familiar with that vision, particularly the importance placed on early legal advice in family disputes. Is there scope to add Resolution’s proposed scheme to the mediation pilots that the Government currently have planned? (902223)

Resolution does exceptionally important work, and in the Budget the Chancellor announced an additional £55 million of support for separating parents, including £12 million to deliver a new pilot. We are working with Resolution and other organisations to implement the pilot, which we aim to launch in September this year.

This Conservative Government promised 20,000 prison places by 2025, but so far they have only delivered under 6,000. The Justice Secretary is letting violent offenders out up to two months early because, as we found out from press briefings about dire warnings to No. 10, he has literally nowhere to put them. Instead of focusing on what happened 14 years ago under the last Labour Government, will he level with the public about the true scale of the prisons capacity crisis that is unfolding on his watch?

I have been very candid in saying that there are pressures in our prisons. But here is the thing: first, capacity in our jails is significantly higher than it was under Labour’s watch; and secondly, we have a record of delivery and there will be 10,000 places by next year. Here is the really important point. There are two questions that I posed in my statement. First, would Labour have let out up to 16,000 people during covid—yes or no? We said no. Secondly, would Labour have got rid of jury trials? We did not, but the Opposition would have. If they had made the same decisions that we did, they would have faced the same pressures. This is opportunism, it is silly, and Britain deserves better.

Bring on the general election and I will happily answer those questions. I am not surprised that the Secretary of State does not want to acknowledge the truth. Probation officers have told me that they genuinely fear not being able to keep the public safe, because they are being forced to rush through the early release of violent men in order to free up space. He will have heard the same concerns, so what is he going to do about it?

It is really important that the public are not inadvertently misled. Early release does not apply to those on life sentences, those on imprisonment for public protection sentences, those on extended determinate sentences, any sex offenders, any terrorism offenders and any serious violent offenders. The difference between our scheme and the Opposition’s is that, under their scheme, governors had no discretion to block the release of prisoners; under ours, they do. That is the difference: we prioritise public safety; the Opposition prioritise politics.

T5. My constituent Cindy went through hell when her daughter Victoria was brutally raped and attacked by a serial offender, Donald Andrews. Victoria took her life not long after. This monster was a regular offender before and, to add insult to injury, his whole-life sentence has been quashed and he is now applying for parole. Police psychologists and other professionals have deemed this attacker to be a high risk to society, so will my right hon. Friend make similar representations to the Parole Board—that this monster should never be allowed out? (902225)

Many people in this House will have heard about some appalling cases, but this case is truly one of the most shocking and upsetting that any of us will have encountered. I of course pass on my deepest sympathy to Cindy Legg for the tragic loss of her daughter Victoria. I can indicate that I did enter an overarching view opposing release, and I can announce that he will not be recommended for release. I hope that will be of some comfort to the family. In the Victims and Prisoners Bill we are introducing an additional safeguard: specifically, a power for the Lord Chancellor to order a second check on the release of the most serious offenders to keep the public safe.

The Government’s plans to introduce employment tribunal fees suggest that users should pay towards running costs, implying that only those using the system benefit from it. However, Resolution Foundation research shows that tribunals are heavily relied upon to enforce workers’ rights for all. Does the Justice Secretary not appreciate that any action to deter lower-paid workers from bringing forward cases will be to the detriment of the system as a whole?

We do not believe that a £55 claim issue fee will be a deterrent. The tribunal system costs the taxpayer £80 million a year, and we do not think it is unreasonable that those who use it should pay a small contribution. To answer the question, we do not think it is a deterrent.

T7. The tragic reality is that when intimate partners murder, women are the victims in 90% of cases. What progress have the Government made since the Wade review on ensuring that justice is done in these cases? (902227)

We are increasing sentences by introducing statutory aggravating factors for murders that are preceded by coercive or controlling behaviour, that involve overkill or that are connected with the end of a relationship. For manslaughter involving sexual conduct, we intend to target cases where death occurs in the context of abusive or degrading sexual conduct. We have consulted publicly on sentencing, with starting points for murders preceded by controlling or coercive behaviour and for murders committed with a knife or other weapon.

T2. People want access to justice. The Women’s Budget Group has found that, as a result of the disastrous Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, 85% of vulnerable women are unable to access civil legal aid and the majority of them are reaching crisis point. Does the Minister think it is right that these women are being left without basic access to justice? (902222)

The hon. Lady raises an important point and I would be happy to meet her and take representations on that specific point. I will also discuss it with Lord Bellamy, who, alongside me, deals with civil legal aid.

T9. I thank the Lord Chancellor for meeting me and my hon. Friend the Member for South Leicestershire (Alberto Costa) to discuss the egregious case of Colin Pitchfork, the double child rapist, who has had problems bouncing in and out through the Parole Board system. I know that my right hon. and learned Friend cannot change the law on this retrospectively, but what can he do in upcoming legislation to ensure that we have the protections for our communities to make sure they are safe and that reoffenders are not released? (902229)

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this incredibly important case and for taking it up so powerfully on behalf of his constituents. In the Sentencing Bill, we have a proposal such that people who commit crimes of murder involving sexual and sadistic conduct will not be released, because they will be expected to serve a whole-life order. That is just, on behalf of the British people, and it also helps to keep communities such as that of my hon. Friend safe.

T4. The number of outstanding cases before Gwent magistrates courts has risen by 21% in the last year alone. However, the number of magistrates is now 20% lower in the whole of south Wales. We have heard today about the great work of the magistrates courts and the fact that magistrates come from all walks of life. What are the Government doing to ensure that hard-to-reach people are offering their services as magistrates, including ethnic minorities and, in particular, younger people? (902224)

The hon. Gentleman raises a good point. I lead on diversity in the Department, and a piece of work is already under way on how we can increase the diversity of the magistracy and ensure that we recruit from those hard-to-reach groups. I am more than happy to meet him to swap ideas and discuss how we can continue to change the face of our magistrates.

Does the Secretary of State for Justice agree that in England and across the United Kingdom, the ancient principle of innocent until proven guilty should be upheld and restored, and that the punishment should never be the process?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I was asked about my priorities when I was appointed to this role, and I said that the guilty should be convicted, that the innocent should walk free and that the public should be protected. It is very important that people who are accused of an offence have confidence that the process will be prompt and humane. Ultimately, the British people are fair minded. They want people to be rightfully convicted, but they also want the innocent to walk free.

T6. Since 27 February, there have been six sudden deaths at HMP Parc in Bridgend, and it appears that at least four of those tragic deaths were drug-related. What are the Government doing to ensure that inmates at Parc are kept safe and walk out of prison safe and well at the end of their sentence? (902226)

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for highlighting a serious and important issue. I am happy to meet her to discuss it further, if she wishes.

In line with established protocols for deaths in custody, we are not able to comment on individual cases until the relevant investigation by the prisons and probation ombudsman has concluded, but HMP and YOI Parc has mobilised a range of actions to gather intelligence on drug entry points and on what has happened. I am happy to meet the hon. Lady to discuss this matter privately.

When the National Crime Agency briefed Members who are interested in the Investigatory Powers (Amendment) Bill, it estimated that between 550,000 and 800,000 serious sexual offenders are at large in this country. What are the Government doing to identify them? How many more prisons will we have to build to accommodate them?

I am proud that, since 2010, the number of people prosecuted for rape is up 32%, sentences are around 40% longer and the proportion of those sentences spent in custody has increased. We are determined to do everything possible to send a clear message that addressing serious sexual offending is a priority for this Government. We will clamp down on it, and those who perpetrate this vile crime can expect the punishment they deserve.

T8. The Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation Bill, which was tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) and which the Government now support, is a great opportunity to tackle pernicious lawsuits that seek to silence journalists, campaigners and even sexual assault survivors, but two key deficiencies—the overly subjective test and the narrow definition of public interest—mean that anti-SLAPP campaigners tell me that they simply cannot support the Bill in its current form. Ahead of the important Committee stage, will the Lord Chancellor commit to looking at the amendment suggested by the News Media Association and meet me to address its concerns so that the Bill becomes fit for purpose? (902228)

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising this important issue. I am aware of the issues that have been raised. There is plainly a delicate balance to strike. It is incredibly important that individuals can access the courts to get a remedy in appropriate cases, and we want to make sure that the balance is properly struck. We will consider the amendment with care, as I have with the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. If the hon. Lady wants to make representations to me, I will listen to them very carefully.

Worksop witnessed the horrific murder of Pauline Quinn by a man who had been released after serving time for a double murder. The probation service has since admitted that mistakes were made. However, the public still have many unanswered questions. Does the Minister agree that, although it is understandable that all the information sometimes cannot be put in the public domain, the probation service should seek to be as transparent as possible and give communities that information, where possible?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this important issue. He is right to highlight that there are occasions when it is not possible to make all the information public, but it is important that there is as much transparency as possible. If it would be helpful, I am happy to meet him to discuss it further.

T10. Selby is classed by the Law Society as a legal advice desert for housing, education and family legal aid. What are the Minister’s plans to fix that? (902230)

The Legal Aid Agency keeps the location of providers under constant review. We have invested an additional £10 million over the last few months in those specific types of legal aid. If the hon. Gentleman writes to me, I can give him the details of where the spend is going in his local area.

Joshua Rozenberg KC has presented “Law in Action” on Radio 4 over the past 20 years, and it has frequently shed important light on areas of our justice system that need attention. Does the Secretary of State share my disappointment that today’s broadcast will be the programme’s last, because it has not been recommissioned? Will he also pay tribute to Joshua Rozenberg for his work?

I am very grateful to my hon. and learned Friend for raising this point. Joshua Rozenberg has made a profound and important contribution to our country. Indeed, he is required reading, and I read him most days. I share my hon. and learned Friend’s profound regret, and I echo his sentiments. I think the whole House will wish Joshua Rozenberg well.

All through Lent, women nationwide have faced intimidation from the anti-choice group 40 Days for Life blocking their entrance to abortion clinics daily. Why is that happening, given that MPs voted by a ratio of 3:1 in 2022 for safe access zones, with the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Newbury (Laura Farris) being one of them?

I concur with the hon. Lady that it is completely unacceptable that anyone should feel harassed or intimidated when exercising their legal right to abortion services. I hope she will be reassured to hear that it is anticipated that section 9 of the Public Order Act 2023 will be commenced no later than this spring. The consultation on the guidance published by the Home Office closed on 22 January and the final response will be published in due course. I must just say one thing, however: it is right that a balance will need to be struck where competing rights are engaged, including under articles 10 and 11 of the European convention on human rights.

Our probation service is in crisis, with staff overworked, overstretched and undervalued. The expansion of the early release scheme will put yet more pressure on them, so what is the Minister doing this year to help our probation staff face that extra workload?

Probation officers do an exceptionally important job, as I believe we all agree. Let me set out what we have done in respect of prison and probation staff. First, we accepted every penny of the Prison Service pay review body recommendations. We have injected extra funding of more than £155 million a year into probation. Prison officers do a tough job, as do probation officers, but I am delighted to report that the retention of prison officers is improving, with the staff resignation rate in prisons dropping from about 10.7% to 8.3%, and their numbers have increased. As for probation, we have recruited about 4,000 people in the past three years. That is positive and we will continue to support them every step of the way.

Do we have enough crematoriums in the UK, given that many families are now having to wait three, four, five or six weeks for a funeral slot? Why is there such a gap between the cheapest crematorium in the country, which charges £408, and the most expensive, in Stevenage, which charged £1,400 last year?

The challenges facing crematoriums, and in fact the whole funeral sector, are being reviewed by the Law Commission. This is about not just crematoriums, but burial space. There are challenges across the whole death management landscape, to use the technical term, which is why the Law Commission is investigating and bringing forward proposals.

The fees for civil legal aid are half what they were in 1996 and the number of providers has fallen by 40% in the past 10 years. If the Minister actually wants to do something about civil legal aid, why has he kicked the civil legal aid review into the long grass?

Legal aid is always under constant review and I will always take advice from those closest to it. That is why I engage with, for example, the Bar Association, the Law Society and the judiciary on what we need to do. As for kicking things into the long grass, all I can say is that I want to get this right and if that takes time, it will take time.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. The Justice Secretary did not quite answer my question on where the 67,000 criminal cases in the backlog are, and how they are being prioritised and communicated. I do not want another historical child sexual exploitation victim to be told by a Crown court that her case has been cancelled twice because it is not a priority.

The point I was endeavouring to make, although I perhaps did not do so well, is that listing is a judicial function. We have seen the senior presiding judge make a decision that certain sex cases and those most serious rapes, for example—all of them are serious, of course—will be given an early listing. As I say, I do not have complete control over that, but I do discuss it with the Lady Chief Justice and I know that the senior presiding judge is keen to get through those cases at the earliest opportunity.