Skip to main content

Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 750: debated on Tuesday 14 May 2024


The Secretary of State was asked—

Children Remanded in Custody

1. What recent assessment he has made of the potential implications for his policies of the number of children being remanded to custody. (902785)

Custody is reserved for those convicted or accused of the most grave offences, and the total number of children in detention has fallen by 82% since 2010. Before a child can be remanded, the court must be satisfied that it is very likely that the defendant will receive a custodial sentence, and must have explicitly considered and rejected the option of remanding him or her into local authority care.

Some 44% of places in youth custody are taken up by children and young people on remand who do not go on to receive a custodial sentence. Yet children held in young offenders institutions spend most of their time locked up in their cells, amid high levels of violence. Does the Minister think that that is the best place to spend time during adolescence?

The hon. Lady makes an important and compassionate point. It is absolutely right that we should invest in the estate, and I am pleased that we are investing in a new secure school, which will open soon. She makes an important point about the decision to remand. Those decisions are made by independent judges—that is correct—but I hope that she will join me in recognising that the reduction in the overall number of children in custody by 82% since 2010 is a positive thing. When I was prosecuting, young people were going inside for being passengers in vehicles taken without consent. Now, they are inside only for the most grave offences.

Will the Lord Chancellor take into consideration one of the recommendations of the Wade report on sentencing for murder? The definition of “children” should be reconsidered. At the moment, someone who is 16 or very often 17 might be tried when they are 18, but they are sentenced as if they are a child. Surely the question should be the crime rather than the age.

We have altered the sentencing regime such that the courts can take into account what can be quite significant gaps between the sentencing regime that applies to a 17-year-old and that which applies to an 18-year-old. The courts now have additional discretion to ensure that if somebody is very close to their 18th birthday, they can be treated as more mature, which can mean, in appropriate cases, that the punishment will be more severe.

Almost two thirds of children on remand in youth detention do not go on to receive a custodial sentence, and 17% are acquitted, meaning that they were freed from a criminal charge altogether. It costs between £129,000 and £306,000 per year to keep just one child on remand in youth custody. Does the Minister view that as the best use of public money, or does he feel that it could be managed in a more efficient and effective way with an alternative remand provision?

In 2010, the total number of children in custody was over 3,000; that figure is now around 500, so there has been a significant reduction. The decision of whether to remand is a matter for the judges. They can remand in custody only if there are substantial grounds for believing that, if released on bail, the child will commit further offences or indeed fail to surrender. We are also investing millions of pounds in Greater Manchester, for example, to see whether there are other options in remanding children into local authority accommodation and not necessarily into custody.

Public Confidence in Victim Support

2. What steps his Department is taking to help ensure public confidence in the support provided to victims throughout the criminal justice process. (902786)

8. What steps his Department is taking to help ensure public confidence in the support provided to victims throughout the criminal justice process. (902794)

With the Victims and Prisoners Bill, we are putting the victims code on a statutory footing. It includes a right for any victim of crime to be signposted by the police to correct and appropriate support services. We have quadrupled victims funding since we took office in 2010 to over £150 million a year, and have recruited almost 1,000 independent sexual violence advisers and independent domestic violence advisers into the criminal justice system. In addition, we provide a range of freephone support lines, including a 24/7 hotline for rape.

Rapists, domestic abusers and stalkers cannot be convicted if trials are not going ahead, and victims are dropping out after being made to wait years for justice. Where is the Government’s plan to tackle the record court backlog, which is making victims wait years for justice?

We are doing a huge amount to drive down the backlog, which was principally a result of the pandemic. We have increased the fees for both solicitors and barristers by 15%; we have kept open more than 20 Nightingale courts; and we are doing everything within our power to drive down waiting times.

Bearing in mind that Harrow Crown court is not set to reopen for another year because of Ministers’ failure to invest in its repairs early enough, what confidence can victims of crime in Harrow have that Ministers are going to get those who are accused of those crimes to justice much more quickly than is currently the case?

As the hon. Gentleman will know, the issue with Harrow Crown court is that reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete was discovered in that building. We are investing more than £220 million in the court estate, because we know how much it matters, not just so that the courts are functioning, but so that the buildings convey the right sense of dignity so that people respect the process. Harrow is just one of 350 courts in England and Wales.

The Minister is right to recognise the work that is being done on the victims code, and I appreciate the Government’s taking on board a number of the recommendations made by the Justice Committee when we engaged in pre-legislative scrutiny of that Bill.

The Minister will know, however, that there is a particular issue with delays in cases of rape and serious sexual offences, where cases are taken out of the list because prosecuting counsel are not available—they simply cannot be found. She rightly referred to the increase in fees for solicitors and defence counsel. Does she agree that there is now just one piece of the jigsaw that needs to be put in place: to bring the fees for prosecuting counsel in those cases up to the same level as those for defence counsel? That would take about £1.5 million. Will she sit down with the Attorney General and talk with her about how we can do that swiftly?

I can reassure my hon. and learned Friend, the Chair of the Select Committee, that I spoke to the chair of the Bar Council about exactly that issue last week, but I want to provide him with further reassurance. First, there has been correspondence between the Lord Chancellor and the senior presiding judge about any case of rape that is more than two years old. That correspondence is a couple of months old, and he said that all cases would be listed by July this year—that applies to 181 cases in England and Wales. I also want to draw my hon. and learned Friend’s attention to something I know he will be aware of: that we have increased the fees for section 28 hearings, which take place in an irregular sequence in the court listing, from £670 to over £1,000.

On Monday, The Daily Telegraph reported that civil servants are trying to block an amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill that would legislate for the publication of an annual report on crime stats by nationality. Does the Minister support the release of such a report, and what does she think civil servants are worried we will find out? It is time to publish a report and restore trust among the general public.

I thank my hon. Friend for her question. I was not aware of that, but I knew that an amendment had been suggested that was not within the scope of the Bill. My hon. Friend’s suggestion is a sensible one; we already publish the number of foreign national offenders in prison, but I understand the force of her question, and I am happy to meet her to discuss it further.

More than 60 lawyers, campaigners, politicians and academics have written a letter in support of the anti-violence against women and girls campaigner and barrister Dr Charlotte Proudman, who is facing disciplinary action after challenging a judge for taking a “boys’ club attitude” in a ruling on a domestic abuse case. Does the Minister agree that the racial, gender and class-based bias of the justice system must be addressed and that it is right to speak up against injustice? Will she join me in paying tribute to those who are campaigning for a legal sector that genuinely represents, empowers, and is accountable to the wider public?

I count myself as one of the people who campaigns on violence against women, and there are many other right hon. and hon. Members across this House who do the same thing. The hon. Lady will understand, I hope, why I will not get involved in a disciplinary matter concerning a particular barrister. I know what it is said has been said, and it will be for the relevant standards committee to decide whether or not the barrister is at fault.

The Minister may be aware that I used to be the victims Minister, and when I was in that role, I tried to stand up for victims whose loved ones had been killed by road traffic incidents. It is fundamentally unfair that if someone is charged with death by careless driving, as compared with death by dangerous driving, the case is not appealable by the victim for leniency. Is that something we are still looking at, as was the case when I was in the Ministry?

I share my right hon. Friend’s profound concern about death caused by either dangerous or careless driving. As he knows, it was the Conservative Government who created a criminal offence of death by careless driving.

I will just make two points. First, on 28 June 2022, the maximum penalty for the offence of death by dangerous driving was increased to life—previously, it was 14 years. Secondly, we have just agreed to extend the unduly lenient sentence scheme so that the complainant will have 28 days to put in their appeal to the Attorney General and the Solicitor General, who will have a further 14 days to contact the court. We hope that that will encourage more applications, and of course, we keep the category of offences under careful review.

Victims should have the right to know who this Government are letting out of jail early. With today’s news that, despite Ministers’ protestations to the contrary from the Dispatch Box, high-risk offenders have been released early, why should the public have any confidence that this is a Government who put victims first?

I want to provide some reassurance to the shadow Minister. Under our scheme, no sexual offender, no terrorist offender and nobody who has been convicted of a serious violent crime or been convicted for four years or more will be eligible for early release. I would just remind him that the slight distinction between our scheme and that conducted under the last Labour Government between 2007 and 2010 is that we have a governor lock. That means that the governor of any prison can prevent an individual prisoner from being released early if they do not think that it is suitable to do so, and that was not the case under the last Labour Government.[Official Report, 20 May 2024; Vol. 750, c. 8WC.] (Correction)

Employment Tribunal Panels

3. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of proposed reforms to employment tribunal panels. (902787)

The employment tribunal panel composition arrangements are now a responsibility of the Senior President of Tribunals, and I understand that he intends to publish the responses to the consultation on proposed reforms shortly. He has a statutory duty to consult my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor before making these arrangements, and my noble and learned Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice will be meeting the Senior President of Tribunals—I think tomorrow—to discuss his proposals as part of that duty.

The introduction of tribunal fees previously led to a 54% drop in the number of cases going forward, and the scheme was deemed unlawful by the Supreme Court, so it beggars belief that the Government are looking at reintroducing tribunal fees, and giving a green light to bad employers to exploit workers, who will be deterred from coming forward. What does the Minister say to the 50 organisations, including the TUC, Citizens Advice, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Liberty, that are calling on the Government to reconsider the reintroduction of tribunal fees?

I thank the hon. Member for his question. Many of these issues were raised when the statutory instrument passed through Parliament. The Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Mike Freer), who is the courts Minister, has written to the Senior President of Tribunals to convey those concerns, and I think that is in part why my noble and learned Friend is meeting the Senior President of Tribunals tomorrow.[Official Report, 15 May 2024; Vol. 750, c. 6WC.] (Correction)

The wheels of justice certainly turn slowly under this Government, and hundreds of thousands of people across the country are paying the price in the Crown courts, the civil courts, the family courts and tribunals. At the end of 2023, the employment tribunal backlog stood at more than 460,000 cases. Those are cases affecting workers who have been bullied, workers who have been denied pay and workers who have been unfairly dismissed. Does the Minister think that workers, like the Government, should just give up on the justice system, roll over and accept what employers do to them, or is there a new magic formula to sort this out?

The one thing the hon. Gentleman did not of course mention was the impact of the pandemic on the criminal justice system, and indeed on the employment tribunal system. [Hon. Members: “Oh, come on!”] Opposition Front Benchers do not like hearing it, but they cannot deny the impact of shutting down the system, in effect, for two years. We have massively increased the resources available and we are working through the backlog, but that will take time.

On a similar point, in a cost of living crisis, workers are now expected to pay to take their employer to an employment tribunal in cases of wage theft, unpaid redundancy pay and compensation for unfair dismissal. Quite frankly, it is outrageous that this is being levied at a time of intense pressure on family budgets. Do the Government not agree that access to justice must never be contingent on one’s ability to pay, and that these proposed changes ought to be scrapped to promote greater fairness in the system?

I thank the hon. Member for his question. We have introduced a regional virtual court to safeguard access to justice, and we will always make that available as far as it is possible to do so. As I say, we are working through the backlog at pace.

Rwanda: Asylum and Immigration

4. If he will issue guidance to lawyers on the potential implications for the criminal justice process of the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Act 2024. (902788)

The hon. Lady asks about the implications for the criminal justice system of the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Act 2024. To be clear, that Act relates to immigration and potentially administrative law. It does not substantially impact on the criminal law, and accordingly no specific guidance is required.

I thank the Secretary of State for that response. May I praise the quick response from solicitors and the community in Glasgow to Rwanda removals, very much in the spirit of the Glasgow Girls and the Glasgow Grannies and Kenmure Street three years ago? Is there a deliberate policy to remove people from Scotland to England to prevent them from accessing legal aid, as they would be able and fully entitled to do in Scotland? What guidance has been issued to lawyers in this respect? Lastly, what right do MPs have to intervene in cases of removal, because I have been told that MPs have been asked for wet signatures from people who have been taken to immigration removal centres in England.

There are several questions in there but the answer to the first question is no, that is not correct. The point about legal advice is very important: people should get legal advice so that they can make their points. That is why we are investing heavily: when the Illegal Migration Act 2023 comes into force there will be a 15% uplift; we have invested £1.5 million to reaccredit senior caseworkers; and we are also paying for travel time. We recognise that; the legislation is necessarily robust and we are also ensuring people get the legal advice they need.

I listened with great interest to that answer. My hon. Friends the Members for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) and for Glasgow North East (Anne McLaughlin) and I have constituents who have been removed from Scotland to England and threatened with deportation. Can the Secretary of State answer this question: why are MPs being denied access to their constituents? It seems outrageous. Does he not agree that this is unacceptable and that lawyers and their elected representatives should not be impeded by arbitrary barriers when accessing constituents who are threatened with deportation?

I would be more than happy to discuss that point with the hon. Gentleman. Of course MPs should have access in appropriate circumstances, but the critical point is for individuals to get legal support—I say that with no discourtesy to him as a constituency MP. That legal support is important. As I have said, when the IMA comes into effect we will increase funding by 15%, pay for travel time and ensure the reaccreditation of senior caseworkers. That is what individuals need: support through legal advice, and that is what we are providing.

Parc Prison

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question and also for her typically measured and sensitive contribution to yesterday’s urgent question on this issue. Ensuring our prisons are safe and secure for both staff and prisoners remains our top priority. His Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service has been working closely with G4S, the operator of HMP Parc, to ensure the welfare of prisoners, and I visited last month to see the work for myself. I am particularly conscious of the importance of that in light of the nine deaths in HMP Parc since March.

As the Minister mentioned, yesterday I had the opportunity to raise in the House the very real concerns of parents with sons at Parc, particularly in relation to drug use. When I contacted the prison two months ago it replied that in the year to September 2023 there had shockingly been 1,600 incidents of self-harm in a prison of 1,800 inmates. Does the Minister accept that parents have been asking particularly for mental health support for years and it has not been happening?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady again for her question. The provision of mental health support is absolutely vital; it is obviously something that needs to be done hand in hand and in partnership with the local health board in Wales. We continue to work closely with the health board both on the issue she has raised and more broadly on the issues underpinning some of the challenges faced in Parc.

The Minister will be aware of the dire, indeed dangerous, situation we faced at Chelmsford Prison three years ago, when the prison was placed in special measures. He may have seen the latest inspection report which praises the improvements, especially in being a safer and more productive place and the work done to take drugs and contraband out of the prison. I thank the Justice Secretary personally for the focus he gave this issue when he was prisons Minister, and congratulate the governor and the staff. Does the Minister agree that the lessons from Chelmsford could help other prisons such as Parc and that, with the right approach, even the worst prison can be turned around?

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for her dexterity in asking her question. She makes a very important point in paying tribute to the work that has been done at Chelmsford prison by my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State, working with the team and all the staff there. I also note the close interest she has taken and how much that means to the staff and the team at her local prison. She rightly points out that there are opportunities to learn lessons from that which may well benefit prisons such as Parc.

Children and Young People: Reoffending

6. What recent assessment he has made of the potential implications for his policies of reoffending rates among children and young people. (902790)

Over the 10 years to 2022, proven reoffending rates, cautions and convictions for children and young people have fallen from 40.4% to 32.2%. Although there has been a slight uptick over the past year, the fact remains that reoffending by children and young people has fallen significantly under this Government.

Last week I saw the powerful new play “Punch” by James Graham. I cannot recommend it highly enough to all right hon. and hon. Members, who are welcome to come to Nottingham Playhouse to see it. It raises important questions about young men and their offending behaviour and shines a light on the potential power of restorative justice. What role does the Minister believe restorative justice can and should play in tackling reoffending, which, as he said, has risen for the first time in a decade among adults and children?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady not just for her question, but for her kind invitation to visit Nottingham Playhouse—it is just up the road from my constituency in Leicestershire, so I might take her up on that. In answer to her substantive question, although decisions on restorative justice are a matter for judges—there are relevant considerations to take into account—I see restorative justice as one element of a package that can help to reduce reoffending and get children and young people who commit crime back on to the straight and narrow.

Prisons: Illegal Drugs

7. What assessment he has made of the potential implications for his policies of trends in the number of drugs found in prisons over the last five years. (902793)

The Government take a zero-tolerance approach to drugs in prison, as is reflected in our policy approach, which has seen £100 million-worth of investment into measures to tackle the smuggling of contraband, including drugs, into prisons. In the year ending March 2023, there were 19.7% fewer incidents where drugs were found than in the year to March 2019, reversing that pre-pandemic trend. There remains more to do, but it is important to note that progress has been made.

The most recent report by HM inspectorate of prisons into HMP Parc in 2022 found that almost half of prisoners had easy access to drugs, and our current Welsh Affairs Committee inquiry into prisons has received evidence regarding drug use, as well as the fact that Parc is understaffed and staff are inexperienced. In light of that evidence, and the recent deaths and surge in recorded violence in Parc Prison, would the Minister welcome a new inspection by the chief inspector? Given the £400 million cost of the contract for G4S to run the prison, has he given consideration to the Prison Service stepping in to manage it, as it has done with Birmingham Prison?

The hon. Lady made a number of points. In terms of tackling drugs, in Parc we have X-ray body scanners and the Rapiscan system, and we have handheld devices being rolled out. In respect of her two specific questions, any inspection is a matter for the chief inspector of prisons. In terms of the overall performance of Parc, it is important to remember that although there are challenges, which were addressed in the urgent question yesterday, Parc is rated as performing well and its contract is performing well. In the 2022 inspection, it got one measure of “good” and three of “reasonably good.” There is more to do, and we will continue to work with the prison, but the contract continues to perform well.

The Government boast, as they have done just now, about their investment in new body scanners to detect drugs on everyone entering a prison each day, yet a damning report in The Times found that the body scanners at HMP Bedford were not even staffed. What is the point in spending £100 million on scanners if they are not even used?

Before turning to the substance of the hon. Lady’s question, may I take this opportunity to wish her a happy birthday? [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”]

It is important to remember that this investment is across the estate. I was in HMP Wandsworth yesterday seeing the work being done there. In the context of Bedford, the body scanners were used at appropriate times in an appropriate manner.

Custodial and Community Sentencing

9. If he will make a comparative assessment of the effectiveness of short custodial sentences and sentences served in the community. (902795)

Ministry of Justice reoffending statistics show that those serving a sentence of six months or less have a 59% reoffending rate. For offenders punished with suspended sentences or community orders, the reoffending rate is 24%. The Department’s 2019 analysis of a matched cohort of over 30,000 offenders showed lower reoffending rates for those serving sentences in the community when compared with immediate custody of less than 12 months, avoiding tens of thousands of potential crimes.

I agree with the Bishop of Gloucester that community payback schemes are often far more appropriate than short-term custodial sentences, particularly for women prisoners. If my hon. Friend agrees with that, does he also agree that we could expand the range of community payback activity to include, for example, helping at good local charities such as the Nelson Trust and the Family Haven, and, especially during this summer season of litter picking across the country, keeping Britain tidy?

I thank my hon. Friend for that sensible question. I agree that community payback offers offenders an opportunity to make visible reparations to their local communities, with millions of hours being delivered each year. As an example, this March, for the great British spring clean, offenders spent thousands of hours clearing litter across the country. We are trialling a new way to deliver community payback through the rapid deployment pilot, which was launched last year. Community payback teams are working in partnership with local authorities to see incidents cleaned up within 48 hours’ notice, and we are now expanding that to all 12 probation regions.

Restorative justice in Northern Ireland has been an effective method of ensuring that victims and perpetrators can at least come together and perhaps try to find a solution. It is also a way of ensuring lesser sentences. Has the Minister been able to look at the community restorative justice that we have done in Northern Ireland to ensure that those on the mainland who offend can have a new life as well?

I personally have not, but I gather that Minister of Justice officials are abreast of that. I would like to meet the hon. Gentleman to hear more about that from him personally.

Prison Capacity

Thanks to funding from the Prime Minister when he was Chancellor, we are delivering the largest prison building programme since the Victorian era, with 10,000 additional places on track to be delivered by the end of next year. To secure the pipeline of further prisons, last October I announced an investment of £30 million to acquire land even further in advance to mitigate the risk of planning delay. We are also delivering an additional 460 rapid deployment cells across the estate.

The National Audit Office warned the Government over four years ago that prisons would run out of space by 2023. Of the promised 20,000 places, it has been revealed that only just over a quarter have been delivered, so as a result we see the Government spending £50 million renting out police cells, grim conditions in overcrowded prisons and a chaotic early release scheme. Why have the Government proved incapable of averting this crisis?

As a result of the record amount of investment in prisons, we brought on HMP Fosse Way, and we have HMP Five Wells. I invite the hon. Member to visit them, because these are excellent, modern prisons with fantastic rehabilitative conditions, providing an excellent opportunity to keep the public secure and prisoners rehabilitated. We will also be rolling out HMP Millsike. We have planning permission for HMP Gartree. We are also rolling out houseblocks at Stocken, Rye Hill and Guys Marsh; and there will be further ones at Gartree. This is a Government who believe in building, and we are getting on with the job.

Managing prison capacity is in part about ensuring that we have enough prison officers, but being a prison officer can be both demanding and dangerous, with 70% of prisoners between the ages of 25 and 49—at the peak of their physical fitness. My prison officer constituent told me that, despite that, the officer retirement age is 68, meaning that staff well into their 60s are dealing with young and often aggressive people. While it is important to retain experienced prison officers and recruit to the service, what consideration has my right hon. and learned Friend given to reducing the retirement age in line with policing?

Prison officers are the absolute backbone of the system, and it is absolutely right that we should recruit and retain. I am pleased to say that in 2023 we recruited an additional 1,600 officers and, just as importantly, the resignation rate is coming down, from 10.5% to 8.5%. That is really positive. On my hon. Friend’s point about retirement, it is worth knowing that the employee contribution rate to pensions for prison officers is one of the most competitive in the public sector. That is exactly as it should be. On the specific point of retirement age, I will be happy to discuss that with her further.

Non-disclosure Agreements

11. Whether he has had recent discussions with Cabinet colleagues on the use of non-disclosure agreements in sexual assault, harassment and misconduct cases. (902797)

It is important to flag at the outset that confidentiality clauses are only ever used in the civil context, rather than the criminal. With that in mind, we are tabling an amendment to the Victims and Prisoners Bill to make any non-disclosure agreement void if it purports to restrict the right of an individual to report the same act to the police or to access any kind of medical or therapeutic support—a move that has been welcomed by many, including the Law Society and the Bar Council.

Thousands of people are silenced due to non-disclosure agreements and gagging clauses in cases of alleged sexual violence, bullying and harassment. The Legal Services Board has reported that signatories of NDAs suffer devastating impacts due to fear of retribution. Pregnant Then Screwed has said that an estimated 435,295 mothers have been gagged by an NDA or confidentiality clause. The Bill tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) would end the misuse of NDAs in the workplace. Why are the Government so hesitant about supporting a statutory ban?

As someone who spent more than a decade practising as an employment lawyer, I can tell the hon. Lady that there is a role for the confidentiality clause in any kind of compromise agreement when both sides resolve their dispute without going to court, and without admission of liability or any finding of liability on either side. We recognise that when they are used in their most extreme form, particularly in the most high-profile sexual harassment claims, victims have told us that they felt they could not go to the police or access counselling. We have righted that wrong. However, I will stand up for confidentiality clauses, and I want to correct slightly the hon. Lady’s point: they are only really encountered where there is a dispute concerning the Equality Act 2010. That needs to be immediately contextualised—it applies only in employment, education and in the provision of goods and services. We have taken the same step in relation to students through the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act 2023.

Reoffending Rates

Reducing reoffending is a core mission of these Ministers and this Government. That is why we have prioritised accommodation for prison leavers and why we have invested heavily in employment, with prison employment leads and employment hubs in every resettlement prison. Crucially, the plan is working: in the two years to March 2023, the proportion of prison leavers in employment six months post release more than doubled.

Clearly, providing safe and secure accommodation for ex-offenders when they leave prison is the first and most important part of getting them on the path to rebuilding their lives. What action is my right hon. and learned Friend taking to ensure that that happens, so that people are not tempted to reoffend?

No one in this House has done more than my hon. Friend to look after the plight of people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness. I am proud to say that the proportion of offenders in homes for their first night post release is 86%. That is because we have rolled out 12 weeks of guaranteed community accommodation. I went to Luton and Dunstable and spoke to a probation officer who had worked there for 30 years, and he said that was the single most significant policy roll-out of his entire career. It is critical to ensure that prisoners and ex-offenders can be rehabilitated.

Does the Secretary of State agree that reoffending rates would reduce further if we had a more concentrated attack on the illicit substances that continue to go into prisons, as well as the massive use of prescription drugs, which many people in prisons tell me are causing problems for people close to release?

The hon. Gentleman raises an excellent point, and he is right. The reoffending rate is worth focusing on: in 2010 it was around 31%, and now it is 25%. The reason for that is a combination of focusing on accommodation, as we have just discussed, and employment so that people have a stake in society, as well as tackling substance abuse. We are looking at technology with great focus, to ensure that people can be treated for their substance addition on the inside by the very clinicians who will treat them on the outside. That continuity is vital to get them off drugs and rehabilitate them.

Support for Jurors

14. If he will make an assessment of the adequacy of support available to jurors who have been adversely affected by sitting on a jury. (902800)

Juries are a vital part of our criminal justice system, and jury service is an important civic duty. We want to do everything we can to help jurors feel supported as they undertake that important role, which is why the Government have announced our intention to test counselling sessions for jurors who suffer mental and emotional strain following a trial. That pilot will commence in 15 courts this summer.

Currently, jurors dealing with extremely violent crimes, witnessing ever-increasingly sophisticated and graphic material, often feel that they do not have sufficient aftercare to deal with their experiences. They are advised to seek counselling only with their GP or the Samaritans. What discussions has the Minister had on increasing the amount of post-trial support for jurors when they have faced potentially traumatic levels of stress as a result of their experience?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question, which is extremely relevant. As she can imagine, there have been extensive discussions between the Department and the judiciary about this. The senior presiding judge has approved the test sites for the pilot that I have just discussed. Support of the type that we are providing in the pilot has not been provided before, so the pilot itself will inform an essential part of the judgment we make on whether and how we can carry on.

Immigration: Legal Aid

Access to legal aid matters. We have taken action to broaden access in immigration and asylum cases by: uplifting fees for work done under the Illegal Migration Act 2023, when it commences; providing up to £1.4 million this year for accreditation and re-accreditation of senior caseworkers conducting legal aid work; allowing detained duty advice scheme providers to give guidance remotely, where appropriate; and introducing payment for travel time between immigration removal centres and detained duty advice scheme surgeries.

The Bar Council of England and Wales has submitted its grave concerns to the Ministry of Justice’s review of civil legal aid, citing that it is

“not sustainable in its current form”

and that it has significant concern

“in relation to future availability of counsel”

in immigration and asylum cases. It also notes that in real terms civil legal aid fees have now halved compared with what they were 28 years ago. What are the next steps to ensure the future of legal aid in immigration cases, or is justice now for only the wealthy?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that important question. We are broadening access to legal aid. The means test review, when fully implemented, will put an additional £25 million into legal aid and bring an additional £2 million into the scope of legal aid. We are rolling out the housing loss prevention advice service—that is another £10 million going in. There will be up to £141 million going into legal aid. We are also rolling out the review of civil legal aid, which will report later this year. We will be issuing a Green Paper in July to look at what we need to do to have a sustainable, resilient and well-resourced system, because we want high-quality lawyers doing civil legal aid. That is vital for the kind of country we want to be.

Court Case Backlogs

18. What recent assessment he has made of the potential implications for his policies of the case backlog in the criminal and civil courts. (902806)

We remain committed to reducing the outstanding case loads across our courts in England and Wales. To enable the courts to get through more cases, we have extended the use of 20 Nightingale courtrooms this financial year, allocated £220 million for essential modernisation and repair work of our court buildings up to March next year, and funded unlimited sitting days, including 107,700 days during the most recent financial year, the highest level since 2016.

For anyone who has been a victim of crime, delays in getting cases into court add massively to the stress and anxiety they experience. What would the Secretary of State say to any Member whose local magistrates court had 1,954 criminal cases waiting to be heard at the end of December 2023? Would he say that a backlog of that scale was acceptable?

The right hon. Gentleman raises an important point about magistrates courts. It is true that case loads in magistrates courts, which of course deal with over 90% of crimes—common assault, criminal damage, non-residential burglary and so on—are significantly lower than they were during the pandemic. The particular pressure is in the Crown court. We made a decision of principle during the white heat of covid not to get rid of jury trials. Now, I know that in Scotland the SNP Government are a little ambivalent about jury trials, but we think they are a very important part of the rights of free-born Britons. We will hold fast to them and we will put in resources: more Nightingale courts; more judges, by raising the retirement age; and more legal aid. We will invest in and recover the system while holding fast to our principles.

When I was a Justice Minister, I introduced virtual hearings so that cases could proceed much more effectively. Will the Lord Chancellor kindly update the House on the progress of those hearings?

I am delighted to hear from my right hon. Friend, who was such a distinguished Minister in this Department. He did indeed introduce virtual hearings in our courts, and time has proved how prescient he was, because that was the right thing to do. I welcome the recent decision by the Judicial Office to make remote hearings the default arrangement for bail applications. In a wider context, a private Member’s Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (Andy Carter), which is currently making its way through Parliament, will amend legislation so that magistrates and judges in magistrates, county and family courts will be able to hear cases remotely when that is appropriate.

Legal Aid

19. What progress he has made on implementing the recommendations of the National Audit Office report on the Government’s management of legal aid. (902807)

The National Audit Office report on the management of legal aid was a valuable piece of work, and we are considering its conclusions carefully. The Government hugely value the work of legal aid lawyers, which is why we commissioned a review of civil legal aid to identify options for the delivery of a more effective, efficient and sustainable system for legal aid providers. A Green Paper containing policy options is planned for July this year.

There are no providers of housing legal aid in the borough of Bedford, and the number of people living within 10 km of a provider of legal aid housing advice in England and Wales has fallen from 73% to 64% in the last decade. Does the Secretary of State agree that whatever legal redress is provided in the Renters (Reform) and Leasehold and Freehold Reform Bills will be meaningless if there is no legal aid system to enforce those reforms?

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will welcome the £10 million that is going to the Housing Loss Prevention Advisory Service, which is a revolutionary step to ensure that those who are at risk of eviction can access the legal aid they require in order to make their case. I respectfully invite the hon. Gentleman to come and see me so that I can discuss this with him further and he can be a voice for his constituents, signposting them to the support that is available, because it is important for them to be aware of the support that the Government are providing.

Domestic Abuse

20. What steps he is taking to prevent domestic abuse perpetrators from using the justice system to extend control over victims. (902808)

The Government have taken significant steps to prevent domestic abusers from using the justice system to extend control over their victims. Section 65 of the Domestic Abuse Act 2021 prevents them from cross-examining their victims and requires special measures to be available in court, and we have also amended prohibition orders under section 91(14) of the Children Act 1989, which can bar any individual from making a further application to court without permission when abusive partners are judged to be bringing victims back to court without reasonable purpose.

My hon. Friend takes domestic abuse very seriously, but is she aware that perpetrators all too frequently seek to use the civil courts to perpetrate further abuse of their victims, often with the support of legal aid and often using “experts” with no relevant qualifications to make accusations of, for instance, parental alienation or child grooming? Can she please reassure me that the Government are taking this matter seriously, to ensure that perpetrators do not continue to use our courts system to retraumatise their victims?

My right hon. Friend asks an excellent question, but let me first remind her that this is precisely the issue at which the section 91(14) prohibition orders are directed. Moreover, one of the changes made under the Domestic Abuse Act gave the courts themselves the power to make those orders of their own volition, rather than waiting for an application from the victim.

As for the second part of my right hon. Friend’s question, to the extent that we are making changes to legal aid, all those changes are in favour of the victim. We are removing illiquid and contested assets from consideration of means, all protective orders can be obtained without any assessment of means, and we are undertaking a legal aid means test review to make the test much more generous to victims.

My right hon. Friend’s final point concerned the so-called experts who give evidence on parental alienation. The Government do not recognise the concept of parental alienation, and do not believe that it is a syndrome capable of diagnosis. We have responded to the Domestic Abuse Commissioner on this subject in writing.

Topical Questions

Since the last session of Justice questions, I have met my G7 ministerial counterparts in Italy to discuss topics ranging from preventing illegal migration to tackling organised crime. Furthermore, we have announced a new offence—in which, incidentally, my G7 colleagues were very interested—prohibiting the creation of sexually explicit deepfakes, announced measures to remove parental responsibility from those convicted of the rape of a child, made progress with the Litigation Funding Agreements (Enforceability) Bill in the House of Lords to support access to justice for those such as the postmasters, and introduced an amendment to the Victims and Prisoners Bill to provide further protection for victims against unnecessary disclosure of counselling notes.

I have also attended the “Unlocking Investment in Ukraine” conference, which brought together Ukrainian lawyers and eminent British jurists. We in this country understand the importance of a strong legal sector to secure Ukraine’s future. The British people and this Parliament are determined to ensure that once it has won the war, Ukraine wins the peace as well.

With more than 80,000 children caught up in private family law proceedings, what is the Secretary of State doing to ensure that the welfare of children is protected?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising private family law, because all too often people raise the issue of crime, but family matters too. I am really delighted that we have managed to secure funding from the Treasury to roll out early legal advice in private family law. Alongside the Pathfinder pilot scheme, it is designed to make the process of dealing with private family disputes more seamless and less painful, and ultimately ensure that children are put first.

T4. People in Carshalton and Wallington, particularly women, are being targeted in so-called “crash for cash” insurance scams. Could my right hon. and learned Friend outline what support is available to victims of this sort of crime? (902813)

If someone is the victim of a “crash for cash” scam, they are likely to be the victim of an offence under the Fraud Act 2006 or, potentially, under the Road Traffic Act 1988. We have quadrupled the funding for victims of crime, who are entitled under the victims code to be kept updated about the crime, to be notified about compensation and to be offered special measures if the case gets to court. Regardless of whether someone is the victim of “crash for cash”, theft or any other crime, the state should be there to provide the support they need.

This week the chief inspector of prisons found that, at HMP Lewes, the Government’s early release scheme is undermining safety and risk management. In one case, a high-risk prisoner was released early despite being a risk to children, having a history of stalking and domestic abuse, and being subject to a restraining order. Is this the Secretary of State’s idea of putting public safety first?

I read that report with care and will be looking very carefully at that specific case. It is important to read precisely what the chief inspector said. He said that that was an incident right at the beginning of the process, and he expected that things would bed down as we move on. The critical point is that under the Government’s scheme, if there is a concern about an individual who is proposed to be eligible, the governor can impose a veto, which gets the decision escalated to a panel. That is an important safeguard, and it was not present under the Labour scheme, as the hon. Lady well knows.

Report after report; failure after failure. At Parc Prison, nine people have died in just two months. At Bedford, cells were flooded with raw sewage. At Wandsworth, a suspected terrorist escaped last year, the prison is still not secure and the governor has resigned. She has taken responsibility. When will the Secretary of State?

The hon. Lady is right to say there are prisons where the standards are not where we want them to be. There are something like 120 prisons in the estate, and we are the party that created the urgent notification system so that these matters can be drawn to the attention of the Government, but I will make the following point. There are prisons that have failed in the past, and we have turned them around. Take HMP Liverpool, which I went to. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill), who is Chair of the Justice Committee, will remember that in 2017 there was a scathing report about the prison, which has been turned around. It is safe, decent and rehabilitative, and prisoners are doing excellent work. Or take HMP Chelmsford, which had a UN and has been turned around. We take this issue incredibly seriously, and we are the party that is investing record amounts in our estate. In government, Labour boasted that it would bring in three Titan prisons, but it brought in one.

Order. Secretary of State, this is topicals. I have to get your colleagues in, and I am sure you would not want them to miss out.

T5. A number of my constituents in Chipping Barnet tell me that they continue to have problems with delays in getting court judgments implemented by bailiffs. Will the Secretary of State do everything he can to tackle delays in the courts and bailiff system, especially for possession proceedings, where there continue to be real problems, causing delays and costs? (902814)

I thank my right hon. Friend for that important point. Fewer than 1% of tenancies required court action in 2019, but for difficult cases that do escalate to the courts, the Government recognise the importance of making sure that the process is smooth and efficient. Nearly 90% of county courts are currently listing possession hearings within four to eight weeks after a claim is received. On bailiff recruitment issues, we are running recruitment campaigns and have reduced administrative burdens to free up resources for bailiffs to focus on enforcement activity.

T2. The Government’s latest panic measures to deal with the prison capacity crisis, including expanding the early release scheme to 10 weeks, have simply fuelled the probation crisis instead, with staff warning that many of these releases are unsafe and result in recall in a matter of days. Can the Minister confirm what specific extra resources he has recently put into this struggling service, so that it can cope with the sharp rise in probation workloads? (902811)

The hon. Lady is right to highlight the work of probation. I put on record—as I know my shadow would and I know she would—our gratitude to all those who work in our probation service. Over the long term, since 2021 we have put an extra £155 million a year into the probation service, and 4,000 more staff in training. She will have also seen the recent announcement made by my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor in respect of the probation reset to enable probation officers to focus their time on where it makes the greatest difference and has the greatest impact.

T9. We know that our prisons are extremely full, for the entirely understandable reasons that the Lord Chancellor has set out, but that often means that they cannot do the job of rehabilitation that we would all like them to. Will the Minister look again at the proposals I put forward with the Centre for Social Justice for a tough new sentence called the intensive control and rehabilitation order, to be served in the community but under strict conditions including GPS tags and compulsory courses to reduce the likelihood of reoffending? (902818)

I can confirm to my hon. Friend that officials have reviewed and considered ICROs, which involve the use of electronic monitoring, curfew arrangements and rehabilitative requirements targeted towards offenders who would otherwise be in custody. In June last year, we began a pilot of a scheme similar to the one he proposes, involving intense supervision courts, which divert offenders with complex needs away from short custodial sentences and provide them with wrap-around, multi-agency support to target the root causes of their offending behaviour.

T3. Today, at an event organised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford East (Imran Hussain), I am meeting my constituents who were encouraged by the solicitors firm SSB Law to pursue no win, no fee claims against defective cavity wall insulation providers. SSB Law subsequently went into administration, leaving my constituents with extortionate legal costs from defendant lawyers. What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that the Solicitors Regulation Authority has the necessary powers to provide my constituents with the protection, compensation and justice that they deserve? (902812)

I thank the hon. Lady for raising that important point on behalf of her constituents, and I will write to her.

T10. It is now five years since my constituent, Ellie Gould, was brutally murdered in her own home. Her assailant been given a paltry 12-and-a-half-year sentence. Recently, a man who killed a stranger in the street was given 25 years, but simultaneously, on the same day, someone who cut his wife up into hundreds of pieces and disposed of the parts in a river was given a sentence starting at only 15 years. The Wade review recognised the terrible disparity between domestic murders and non-domestic murders, and called for that disparity to be corrected. Will the Secretary of State now tell us when he is going to reply to the Wade review? I hope that he will take due account of it and will equal up the sentences so that people who are guilty of domestic murders pay the same penalty as those who kill someone in the street. (902819)

In response to the Wade review, we have increased sentences by introducing statutory aggravating factors for murders that are preceded by controlling or coercive behaviour, that involve overkill or that are connected with the end of a relationship. We have also consulted publicly on sentencing starting points for murders preceded by controlling or coercive behaviour and for murders committed with a knife or other weapon. The Government are carefully considering the responses to the consultation and will publish their response in due course.

T6. The urgent notification issued last week to Wandsworth Prison raised the same issues found at HMP Bedford six months ago. Both revealed a horror show of violence and overcrowding in filthy environments, with horrendous levels of self-harm and drug misuse. The staff try their best but lack experience. Does the Minister accept that it is his Government’s funding cuts and policy failures that have delivered a broken justice system that offers little hope of reform for prisoners or protection for victims? (902815)

No, I do not accept the premise of the hon. Gentleman’s question, which may not surprise him. In respect of Bedford Prison, which he and I have spoken about, we continue to put the investment into both staff and the prison to make progress following that urgent notification.

A constituent recently attended my surgery in Bishop Auckland to disclose her serious concerns about poor communications from both the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service and the family court-appointed children’s guardian in her case. This is an extremely distressing time for her and her family, so good communication is surely key. How can the Minister ensure that my constituents will receive the support and advice they need in a timely fashion?

I thank my hon. Friend for being so assiduous in raising this important matter on behalf of her constituents. We are investing heavily in the family system to deal with precisely these issues. If something has gone wrong in that specific case, perhaps she will be kind enough to come to see me so that we can discuss it further.

T7. There are 2,796 prisoners with indeterminate sentences for public protection languishing in our prisons, 705 of whom are 10 years over their original tariff and 112 of whom had a tariff of less than two years and are now over tariff by 15 years or more. The MOJ’s refreshed IPP action plan clearly is not working, so what does the Secretary of State plan to do to fix this dire situation? (902816)

The total number of IPPs is slightly higher than that but, looking into the data, the really significant factor is that, whereas there were some 6,000 IPP prisoners in 2012, the number who have not been released is down to around 1,200. Our action plan tries to address that. Our reforms are designed to ensure that, when IPP prisoners are released, they do not face a licence period of 10 years, which can lead to them being recalled at any time. Reducing it to three years is a humane and sensible way of trying to erase this stain on the conscience of our justice system.

Yesterday, The New Yorker published a 13,000-word inquiry into the Lucy Letby trial, which raised enormous concerns about both the logic and the competence of the statistical evidence that was a central part of the trial. The article was blocked from publication on the UK internet, I understand because of a court order. I am sure that court order was well intended, but it seems to me that it is in defiance of open justice. Will the Lord Chancellor look into this matter and report back to the House?

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for raising this. Court orders must be obeyed, and a person can apply to the court for them to be removed. That will need to take place in the normal course of events.

On the Lucy Letby case, I simply make the point that juries’ verdicts must be respected. If there are grounds for an appeal, that should take place in the normal way.

T8. Taunton Deane magistrates court had 1,027 outstanding criminal cases in the first quarter of 2023, and the Justice Secretary’s own constituency, as of the end of December, had 1,954. These delays are letting down victims, their families, witnesses and defendants, while undermining public confidence in the criminal justice system. How does he plan to tackle this backlog? Will he provide those working tirelessly in our courts with adequate support and resources to carry out their duties? (902817)

We have increased capacity in the system. We have opened 20 Nightingale courts, including Cirencester Crown court in my county of Gloucestershire. We have increased the number of judges by 1,000. We have put up to £141 million into legal aid. We have raised the retirement age. And we are ensuring there is support for victims, including through independent sexual violence advisers and independent domestic violence advisers, and by introducing a rape support helpline, and so on. We are doing everything we can to support victims, to increase capacity in the system and to heal the damage caused by covid.

The Lord Chancellor will know that there is particular concern about the growth of the remand population in our prisons, which causes great disruption. He will also know that the senior presiding judge and others are taking innovative measures to list remand cases, but will the Lord Chancellor confirm that, to support that, there will be no financial cap on sitting days in the Crown courts?

As always, my hon. and learned Friend gets to the heart of the matter. Before the pandemic, around 9,000 people were in custody awaiting trial. The figure is now closer to 16,000, which plainly has an impact. It is because we did not get rid of jury trials, which was the right thing to do. I am grateful to the Lord Chief Justice and the senior presiding judge for considering remote hearings of bail applications, to ensure that more lawyers are able to do the cases. Having enough practitioners, as well as sitting days, is critical, and both will have my attention.

Last week’s letter to the Justice Secretary from the chief inspector of prisons again highlighted the dreadful conditions in Wandsworth Prison. Will the Secretary of State take urgent steps to end the overcrowding?

The hon. Lady is right to raise this hard-hitting, searing report. I was interested to note that, although there is a full complement of officers, the prison simply is not delivering the regime that it should. We absolutely accept that. Of course, the high remand population is an issue at Wandsworth, but Cardiff and Liverpool have achieved fantastic results. It can be turned around, so we are responding rapidly. We have already invested heavily, and £24 million has been spent. We have already deployed extra staff at all grades, and we will be providing support. A prison standards coaching team is offering face-to-face coaching for band 3 officers, with further deployment shortly.

I appreciate that an inquiry is being conducted regarding the Horizon scandal, but what is the Department doing to hold to account those lawyers who prosecuted sub-postmasters despite the evidence being to the contrary?

Anybody who appears in court, but particularly prosecutors, must be mindful of their solemn and sacred duty to disclose material to the defence that might reasonably be considered capable of undermining the case for the prosecution—that is literally the most important rule. If they failed in this case, I would expect the appropriate authorities to take robust and prompt action.

Since I last raised this question with Ministers, it has now been estimated that there are more than 10,000 victims of the SSB Law scandal. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford South (Judith Cummins) said, we are hosting an event later today to listen to those victims talk about the real impact on their lives—I extend an invitation to the Minister. Will he commit to my asks of real compensation and protection for the victims of what is now a national scandal?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that kind invitation. I will consider it and respond in due course.