House of Commons
Tuesday 6 September 2016
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Human Rights Act
First, I would like to pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s work on human rights reform as a Minister in this Department. He is a great champion of liberty.
The Government are committed to scrapping the Human Rights Act and introducing a British Bill of Rights.
May I say at the outset that it is an honour to be the first Member to welcome the new Justice Secretary and the new Front-Bench team to their posts? I wish them every success. I also reassure my right hon. Friend, from experience, that being a lawyer is of very limited value in her Department—no offence to the Minister of State.
Britain’s decision to leave the EU will remove the jurisdiction of the Luxembourg Court, which is probably the biggest obstacle to delivering a Bill of Rights. May I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement on the intention to continue this reform and encourage the Government to proceed to consultation as soon as possible?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question, and I remember with fondness our time together on the Justice Committee, where he had many good thoughts to put forward. We will be putting out our proposals in due course, which will discuss these issues in detail, but one of the important points is that we want the ultimate arbiter of those rights to be the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom.
Does the Secretary of State agree that one of the problems with the current set-up is that the code of rights includes many reservations and qualifications that the European Court does not embrace? A British Bill of Rights can ensure that there is proper balance and that the interests of justice are served.
May I, too, welcome my right hon. Friend to her post and her determination to proceed with a British Bill of Rights? Could I urge her to remember that the cornerstone of the rule of law in this country has always been the sovereignty of Parliament? May I urge her not to listen to those who argue that getting rid of an Act that came 40 years after we signed up to the European convention on human rights somehow or other undermines our position within the treaty.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right: human rights were not invented in 1998 with the Human Rights Act. We have a strong record, as a country, of human rights, dating back to Magna Carta, and the British Bill of Rights is going to be the next step in enshrining those rights in our laws.
May I welcome the Secretary of State to her new role and say that while, of course, it is not a prerequisite for the person in her role to be a lawyer, she will no doubt wish to listen carefully to any legal advice she receives about any proposals to reform the law?
There is almost universal opposition to the repeal of the Human Rights Act in Scotland; this is reflected in the Scottish Parliament and across Scottish civic society. On 11 August, I wrote to the UK Government seeking clarification of their plans for so-called reform of the Human Rights Act, following press reports. I have yet to receive a substantive response. At what stage in her plans will the Secretary of State seek to consult the Scottish Government, and can she confirm that she will listen to and respect their answer?
I have already had a number of legal meetings about this issue, and I am sure I will enjoy working with the legal profession in my role. The Prime Minister has already had a very good meeting with the First Minister of Scotland. I will be meeting the Scottish Justice Minister shortly to discuss a number of issues.
I was rather hoping to have a second bite of Her Majesty’s Government, Mr Speaker.
If the Secretary of State has been having legal meetings about the Human Rights Act, she will have been advised that human rights are not a reserved matter and that therefore the Scottish Parliament must be consulted regarding any legislation with regard to human rights. During the independence referendum, Scotland was told that it was an equal partner in this Union. Does she appreciate that to proceed with repeal of the Human Rights Act across the UK would fly in the face of that promise and exacerbate the democratic deficit that already exists in Scotland, where a Tory Government we did not vote for are planning to take us out of the European Union against our will?
I welcome the Secretary of State to her new role. It is good to see a Leeds person at each Dispatch Box. I understand that, like me, she comes from good, left-wing Leeds stock, and I look forward to our exchanges.
At the Secretary of State’s swearing-in ceremony, she quoted with approval the late Lord Bingham. On the Human Rights Act, Lord Bingham said in 2009:
“Which of these rights, I ask, would we wish to discard?”
He went on to say:
“There may be those who would like to live in a country where these rights are not protected, but I am not of their number.”
To give the Secretary of State another chance, because she failed to answer the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner), which of these rights does she wish to discard?
All I can say is that I believe that everyone is capable of reform, even those on the Opposition Benches. I have not yet given up hope on the shadow Secretary of State for Justice.
The whole purpose of the Bill of Rights is to enhance human rights in this country. We have led the world in human rights since Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights that was published in Wales in 1689, and we will continue to do so.
I thank the Secretary of State for that response, but let me say this:
“We were very clear that we will replace the Human Rights Act, which isn’t working for British people, with a British Bill of Rights that gives the ultimate power to citizens in this country.”
Those were the words of the Secretary of State on the “Today” programme in May 2015. Given that, and in the light of the answer that she has just given, can she explain to the House why she wants to rob the people of Britain of their rights? Will she admit that talk of a so-called Bill of Rights is simply posturing and making concessions to the hard right of the Conservative party?
Online Hate Crime
Hate crime is abhorrent and has no place in society. The Government published their plan to tackle hate crime, “Action Against Hate”, in July 2016. This Government believe that the enforcement of criminal legislation has an important role in tackling online hate. We also need deterrence and prevention, which require a broader response, from counter-narrative activity through to effective management from the internet industry.
The last time I asked the Secretary of State a question in here, she invited me to join her on a delegation to China. May I reciprocate and invite her and her Front-Bench colleagues to come to Bassetlaw day in the Jubilee Room, hosted by me and the hon. Member for Newark (Robert Jenrick)?
True Vision, the internet reporting organisation based in the Secretary of State’s offices, is the pride and joy of her Department and the envy of every other Government in the world. Is she going to allow it to disappear into some other Department, or is she going to keep it in her Department?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his characteristically delivered question. The Secretary of State has, I gather, recently written to him on this matter. The cross-Government hate crime programme is highly regarded by this Government and internationally. I am committed to ensuring that that important work continues.
I welcome my hon. Friend to his post. The Government were right to make posting revenge porn online a crime. Figures released today show that there have been 200 prosecutions for revenge pornography, yet more than 1,000 cases have been reported to the police. Does the Minister agree that, as with other sex-related crimes, anonymity for victims perhaps needs to be carefully considered in cases of revenge pornography?
I thank my right hon. Friend for her question and, indeed, for the work that she and her Select Committee do in this area. Revenge porn is a terrible abuse of trust that can leave victims feeling humiliated and degraded. By making it a specific offence carrying a maximum sentence of two years behind bars, we have sent a clear message that this crime will not be tolerated. On anonymity, I am interested in what she says; if she would like to write to me about that issue, I will consider it.
I welcome the Minister to his post. Has he seen this morning’s comments by the Director of Public Prosecutions that social media is one of the driving forces behind the record high in recorded violent crimes against women and girls? I welcome what the Minister has said about the need for a broader response, so what does he plan to do to safeguard the many specialist services that exist to support women who are suffering online harassment and abuse, many of which are suffering funding cuts?
As I have already said, this crime is deplorable. I suspect that it has always happened and that social media has facilitated it, and that we are now detecting more crime of this kind. I am determined to maintain services that support women and, indeed, men who are subjected to the crime, and I will continue to keep a close eye on that.
Online anti-Semitic crime, like revenge porn, is an appalling crime that is more easily committed through use of the internet and anonymity. With specific regard to anti-Semitism, the Government, thanks mainly to the fantastic work done by the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) and his all-party group, have made significant advances. I will consider my right hon. Friend’s comments on anti-Semitic crime, particularly on campus.
In the last year, assaults have risen by 31% and those on prison staff have risen by 40%. That is totally unacceptable and I am determined to tackle it. Reforming prisons will be possible only if they are made safer places for staff and offenders alike.
As the Secretary of State’s response makes clear, prison safety continues to deteriorate. That significant problem puts both prisoners and staff at risk, but a major issue that must be tackled is the retention of staff. Will she set out exactly what she will do to make that a priority and how she will succeed where her predecessors have failed?
I absolutely agree that the retention of staff is a very important issue. I have been to a number of prisons and seen how brave, fearless and hard-working our prison officers are. They are vital in turning around offenders and getting them the education and skills they need to succeed outside. I am determined to support and work with them, and over the coming months I will lay out more detailed plans.
May I warmly welcome the Secretary of State and her team to their posts? Lawyers do sometimes have their uses, and so do non-lawyers. Her predecessor made prison reform a centrepiece of the agenda and rightly described the deterioration of safety in prisons as terrible. The figures have now got worse. He committed to an action plan to tackle violence in our prisons. Will the Secretary of State reaffirm that, and what specific steps will be taken to deal with what is a ticking time bomb in our criminal justice system, because nothing else has worked?
May I say how pleased I am to have been able to meet the Chairman of the Justice Committee? I take the advice of all my lawyers, but particularly that of the Chairman of the Select Committee, extremely seriously.
This is a critical issue that faces our prisons. We cannot have reform in our prisons if we do not have safe prisons for people to work in. Those two things go hand in hand. I am committed to an agenda of making our prisons safe and places of reform. I will be laying out my plans very shortly on this issue, and I look forward to discussing it more with the Select Committee tomorrow.
Will the Secretary of State look again at statements that were made by her Department recently about the number of prison officers? The Department claims that the number has increased, but it has not. Will she look at the matter again? I believe that she did not take into account staff being regraded or the number of hours that they actually work when she examined the number of officers in the system.
I will, of course, look at those numbers in detail. In fact, I am looking at them at the moment. As well as the number of staff, it is important to consider how staff are deployed and trained, and the powers that governors have to get the best out of staff working in prisons. I am looking at all those aspects, but I agree that staff are absolutely crucial to make our prisons work well.
One of the causes of a lack of safety in prisons has been novel psychoactive substances. Does the Secretary of State agree that the ban on the possession of those substances in prisons should really improve the safety of other prisoners and prison officers, if it is properly enforced?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that NPS have been a major issue in our prisons. When I visited HMP Norwich last week, I was pleased to see that it was using the new legislation to tackle that issue in the prison, to search people and to catch them out. HMP Norwich has succeeded in reducing the usage of such drugs already. I would like to see that type of programme happening more across our prison estate.
Forgive me, Mr Speaker; I think that the summer recess has taken its toll on my memory of parliamentary procedure.
I am determined to ensure that our prisons are places of safety and reform. We need to help offenders to get off drugs, improve their education and get the work skills they need so they are less likely to reoffend when they come out.
I thank the Secretary of State for concentrating. Does she see a connection between the long-term decline in prison officer numbers—they went down 30% between 2010 and 2013, and they are going down again—and this massive increase in assaults on staff, which went up 90% over the last Parliament?
May I also warmly congratulate the Secretary of State and the new ministerial team on their appointments? Of course we need more prison officers in prisons, but may I urge the Secretary of State and her Ministers to consider the greater use of prisoners as mentors? Wandsworth is leading the way, with 50 mentors providing teaching and education, but that could also be used in employment, for therapeutic purposes and to cut down the use of drugs.
As a Prisons Minister, my hon. Friend did tremendous work in this area; we are very much learning from the work that he carried out in the Department. He makes an important point, and I think we need to look at the overall culture in some of our best prisons. We have exemplary work going on, such as mentoring, and we need to make sure that that is happening right across our prison estate.
The Secretary of State may be aware that the head of the prison service in Northern Ireland recently stood down. Attacks on prison staff are on the rise. Will the Secretary of State ensure that her Department engages actively with the Department of Justice in Northern Ireland to see what lessons can be learned and to try to improve safety in prisons in Northern Ireland?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We have a big issue with prisons that are out of date and not fit for purpose, which makes it more difficult for our excellent governors and officers to manage them well. I am pleased to say that this summer we were able to close Holloway prison. We have a £1.3 billion building programme. I want new modern prisons to be built in which prisoners will get the education and work they need to succeed in outside life, and to close down some of our most dilapidated and out-of-date prisons.
Victims of Crime
It is crucial that victims of crime are supported as effectively as possible. The victims code was revised in 2015. Victims of all criminal offences are now entitled to support from a wide range of organisations, as well as from criminal justice agencies. The reforms we are making to our courts will significantly improve services for victims and their families—for example, to enable them to give evidence remotely and digitally.
More than 23,000 individual crimes have been reported in Enfield during the past 12 months. For far too long, the victims of these crimes have been forgotten and ignored by the criminal justice system. Given that the Victims’ Commissioner supports the introduction of a law for victims of crime, when will the Government fulfil their election manifesto commitment to bring forward legislation on this issue?
We want to make sure that all vulnerable and intimidated witnesses can give their best evidence in court and feel less anxious. We are committed to making sure that victims of crime get the support they need. We have protected the overall level of funding for victims across the spending review period, and we announced funding of more than £95 million in 2016-17 to fund critical support services. We will bring forward our legislation, as promised, in due course.
Victims of crime want to see the perpetrators of that crime properly punished. Is the Minister happy that prisoners are automatically released halfway through their prison sentence no matter how disruptive they are or how much of a threat they still pose to the public, or does he agree with me that prisoners should serve the sentences handed down by the courts in full?
The purpose of justice and the primary goal of the justice system must be to reduce reoffending. If somebody in prison has been assessed, is deemed not to be a risk to society and has been properly rehabilitated, it is in the best interests of that individual and of society for that person to be released.
Too often the victims of criminal driving and their families are not actually treated as victims of crime, but told that they have been involved in an accident. How can that culture be changed, and when, finally, will we get the review of sentencing for these types of offences?
One of the best ways to ensure that justice is served is to ensure that victims have the chance to make a victim impact statement to the court, but that does not always happen. What can the Minister do to ensure that it happens in every case?
As has been mentioned, today’s report on violence against women and girls shows an increase in prosecutions. However, victims charities remain concerned about their futures, as was stated by the chair of the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners Supporting Victims Group when asking the Ministry earlier this year to clarify what funding is available to PCCs. The Minister told my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) that he will be “keeping an eye on this matter”. With respect, keeping an eye on the matter is not good enough. Will the Secretary of State now confirm that victims services will receive the full funding that they require?
The victims services budget has increased significantly from £48 million in 2010-11 to about £95 million in the current financial year. In 2016-17, for example, we have allocated about £7 million to 99 rape support centres to provide therapeutic and practical help to male and female victims of rape and child sexual abuse. I do not recognise the description given by the shadow Secretary of State. The Government are committed to protecting victims, particularly women who have been victims of crime.
Prisons: Mobile Phones
The illicit use of mobile phones in prison undermines security, order and control, and has been linked to many forms of criminality. The Government are determined to take action to stop it.
The connection between technology and radicalisation by the dissemination of extremism in prisons is one of the most critical challenges we face. Will my hon. Friend continue to do everything possible to ensure that prisoners, who already face difficulties re-engaging with society, do not have that difficult task made impossible by those who would use technology such as mobile phones to spread extremist poison?
There have been reports from Swansea prison of people throwing mobile phones over the wall, which provides anonymity that allows prisoners to indulge in all sorts of criminal activity. What is the Minister doing about that sort of thing?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Every governor I have spoken to in the last six weeks has mentioned the growing problem of illegal mobile phones in prison. I believe that technology is vital to detecting and blocking such phones. That is why, in addition to the range of technologies that have already been deployed across the prison estate, we have held a high-level meeting with mobile network operators and asked them to use their expertise to develop new technological solutions to deny mobile phone signals in prisons. As responsible businesses, I expect those operators to co-operate fully.
Court Provision: Bury
There is, and there will be, an appropriate level of court provision for the people of Bury.
I warmly welcome my hon. and learned Friend to his new role and thank him for that brief reply. Although court provision might be regarded as adequate now, it is important that it continues to be adequate in the future. I ask the new Lord Chancellor and ministerial team to look again at the proposals for north Manchester and, in particular, at the consequential effects on the police budget, given that the police will be faced with longer journey times when they attend court.
May I start by paying tribute to the work that my hon. Friend has done and the proposals he has made for his local courts? He will know, as a lawyer, that we are investing a huge amount of money—a good £1 billion—to transform our courts and tribunals. Modern technology improves efficiency and means that fewer people need to attend court in person. Excellent facilities are available to the people of Bury and Manchester, which have some of the best courts in the country.
The Minister will know that the proposals across the whole of Greater Manchester are far-reaching and that they are controversial in parts of the city region. Will he explain to the House precisely what was agreed with Greater Manchester combined authority in the memorandum of understanding that his Department signed with it? Does it mean that the combined authority can look again at some of the court closures?
The hon. Gentleman will realise that none of these decisions is taken lightly. It is important to work closely with local government, and that is exactly what has been happening. To give him an impression of the tremendous improvement the court modernisation programme is making, it has been going for four months and 6 million pieces of paper have been avoided as a result.
Order. Huntingdon is a splendid part of the world that deserves to be represented effectively by the hon. Gentleman, whom I have known for a quarter of a century, but it is a long way from Bury, to which this question exclusively relates. [Interruption.] Order. The question is about Bury, I say to the young fellow. He can come in later—we look forward to hearing from him.
That information is published by the legal professions. For example, 13% of QCs are women, and 6% declare themselves as coming from a black, Asian and minority ethnic background.
We want a justice system that works for everyone and a legal services industry that uses all the talent in our country. I have already had very positive conversations with the Lord Chief Justice, who is keen to improve diversity figures in the judiciary, and I am due to meet the Bar Council shortly to talk specifically about the Bar.
I am a huge fan of apprenticeships. The new apprenticeship levy brings a big opportunity for some of our large legal services firms, and right across the board, to increase the number of apprenticeships. I will certainly be talking to those firms about that over the coming months.
At one London provider of legal education, fees for the academic year ahead are as follows: nearly £11,000 for the graduate diploma in law; more than £15,000 for the legal practice course; and near to £19,000 for the Bar professional training course. That is on top of the cost of university education. Such fees are beyond the reach of many people from ordinary backgrounds. Given that reality, how will the Minister ensure a diverse legal profession?
I have been discussing this matter right across the legal profession. At the younger end we are seeing a lot more diversity; the question is how people progress through the pipeline. I would like more transparency so that we can look at people moving through the system. I have no doubt that the Lord Chief Justice and leading judges want to see more diversity. They are very keen to work with me on this agenda.
Prisons: Mental Health
Prisons must become places of rehabilitation where offenders can change their lives and turn away from crime. Addressing health needs, including mental health, is key to creating a safe and rehabilitative environment for prisoners. We are committed to meeting the mental health needs of prisoners. All prisons have procedures in place to identify, manage and support people with mental health illness.
Based on a Ministry of Justice survey, 49% of prisoners were assessed as being at risk from anxiety and/or depression and 16% reported symptoms indicative of psychosis. Department of Health figures, however, are somewhat different; north of 90% of prisoners have a mental health problem if substance misuse is included. I am seeking more data on this area. We are committed to meeting the mental health needs of prisoners, which is why all new intake prison officers receive mental health awareness training as part of their entry-level training.
One hundred people have taken their lives in our prisons in the past year. That is the highest level for over 25 years. More than 9,000 people have self-harmed in our prisons. That is an increase of over 25% in the past year alone. The Government should be ashamed: it is a dereliction of their duty of care. I want to know, having listened to the answer from the Government, what they are actually going to do to look after the thousands of prisoners who have serious mental health conditions and are not being looked after.
The aetiology of mental health is pretty complex. The genesis of problems do not just occur over the term of a Parliament. The system in place for mental healthcare and the continuity of care for people before, during and post their stay in prison is clearly not where it should be. I would argue that that has been the case for many decades. I have been asked to look at this matter and will be doing so, but it is a huge and complex area. As a consequence, I am not about to make any commitments at the Dispatch Box.
There is a particular risk for women in prison. Some 30% of women prisoners have had a previous admission for a psychiatric problem before they went into prison. In the past year, 11 women have killed themselves. My impression is that that is because the previous Secretary of State did not focus on the recommendations of the Corston report, which would have ensured a better level of mental health for women in prison. What is this Minister going to do on the Corston report and on women in prison?
I have read the Corston report and it is a good report. It was published in 2007 and it is still relevant today; it has intellectual coherence with the Charlie Taylor report on youth offenders. I will be looking at it and I am personally persuaded by some of the arguments in it, but I see no evidence that the former Secretary of State was not in any way keeping a close eye on the matter.
Prisons: Sexual Offenders
We will always have prison places to fulfil the orders of the courts. Those convicted of sexual offences are just one cohort of a range we manage daily across the estate. In doing so, we will make sure that estate capacity is realigned to meet the demand for places, including for those convicted of sexual offences.
Her Majesty’s prison Lewes in my constituency has seen a huge surge in prisoners either on remand or serving a sentence for sexual offences. This is putting massive pressure not just on staffing but on space and resources. What specific help can the Minister give HMP Lewes?
My hon. Friend makes a very valid point. Those at HMP Lewes who are charged with sexual offences are generally held in separate units that provide suitable accommodation for their offending behaviours. Perhaps I can reassure her that the prison received £153,000 of the Government’s £12 million fund for safety, and that it plans to spend that on staff, focusing on safety and on violence reduction. There is a recruitment drive going on at the moment. Staff are being vetted and a number of staff will be starting imminently.
Surely the Minister understands that, whether it is prisoners who have been tried and convicted for crimes of a sexual nature or prisoners with mental health and other problems, it is the quality of the management of our prisons that must give us all great concern. When my Select Committee looked at education in prisons, we kept coming back to the fact that the culture of the prison comes from the top and is supported by well trained and well educated prison officers.
On this rare occasion, I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman—the quality of leadership in a prison makes a huge difference to the regime. It makes a huge difference to how staff are inspired and to the rehabilitation of offenders. That is why Government Members are arguing for prison reform to empower governors, give them control of budgets and enable them to get local resources to meet the needs of offenders.
Released Offenders: Employment
Most offenders arrive in prison with very low levels of educational attainment, very high levels of substance misuse and a very poor employment history. I believe that the purpose of modern prisons is to keep the public safe and to tackle each of those issues, so that prisoners have the foundations to secure and hold down a job on release.
I thank my hon. Friend, but I have recently visited prisoners from my constituency who told me that offenders do not have access immediately on their release to national insurance numbers, bank accounts or unemployment benefits. Will the Minister let me know what steps the Government are taking to improve this situation?
I agree with my hon. Friend that if “through the gate services”, as we call them, are to work and to stop reoffending, national insurance numbers, bank accounts and so forth need to be in place. There is a series of programmes in place to tackle this problem, including an offender banking programme, which opens about 5,000 new bank accounts every year.
The Minister has rightly identified the fact that research shows that employment after custody greatly reduces the chances of reoffending, so what work is his Department doing with the Department for Work and Pensions to make sure that offenders not only find work after they leave prison, but stay in work?
As my hon. Friend has rightly identified, tackling the challenge—and it is a challenge—of getting prisoners work when they leave requires a concerted effort across government and locally across the community. Every prisoner has the opportunity to meet a DWP work coach before release, and the work coach’s role is to guide them towards employment. Work coaches can also ensure that prisoners know their national insurance numbers and get the other services they need to be able to make an appropriate transition into the community.
Many prisoners are already on short-term sentences of under nine months and are often in prison for very short periods. Will the Minister give us some advice on how governors will be judged on placing such prisoners into employment when the challenges are very difficult?
Since being appointed to this job, I have met a number of governors, and most of them tell us that they want to be empowered to match resources to the needs of prisoners in their prisons, working with local employers and the whole community. That is what governors want, but this is not the responsibility of governors alone. If we want prisoners to be able to go out and find work, businesses have a role, the community has a role and we all have a role. If prisoners can leave, get jobs and restart their lives for the better, we all benefit.
More than 60% of young people within the justice system have a communications disability, and more than a third of young offenders have speaking and listening skills at the level expected of an 11-year-old. With these skills being fundamental to the ability to hold down a job, will the Minister update us on what assessment the Government have made of speech and language support needs and of how well those needs are being met?
The hon. Lady is obviously right that many prisoners arrive at prison with huge learning difficulties and disadvantages. That is well documented. We need individual programmes tailored to the needs of the prisoner, and the way to do that, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, is to empower governors to work with probation companies and rehabilitation organisations to deliver those programmes.
Fewer than half of the people entering prison have basic standards of English and maths. This is a huge problem because we know that low levels of education can prevent people from securing jobs on release and leading law-abiding lives.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The fact is that too many people enter our prisons without those skills. We need to use their time in prison to help them to gain the basic skills so that they can succeed outside. We have started measuring prisoners’ skills by testing them as they enter prison. I am keen to see that we measure real progress made during prisoners’ stay in prison and hold governors accountable for that.
I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend to her position. I was delighted to hear the new Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport talking about the importance of the arts in prisons. I hope that my right hon. Friend will recognise how the arts can bring prisoners to literacy and teach them a huge range of skills. I hope she will meet the National Criminal Justice Arts Alliance at the earliest opportunity to discuss what the arts can do, particularly in respect of literacy.
What discussions will the Secretary of State have with Justice Departments in devolved legislatures throughout the United Kingdom to ensure that best practice is replicated in the improvement of literacy in all UK prisons?
Access to Justice
The Government’s reform programme is intended to deliver a simpler modern justice system that is available to everyone.
It is important for legal aid to be available, and it is, in housing cases. It is also available in the most vital cases, in which people’s lives, liberty or homes are at stake. It is available in domestic violence cases, and cases in which children may be taken into care. I am, of course, grateful to the hon. Lady for highlighting the issue, but let us be clear about the fact that legal aid in housing cases is available, as is a national helpline, as well as the services of lawyers throughout the country.
I am proud to take on the role of Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary, upholding the rule of law and reforming our justice system. I am determined to ensure that our prisons are places of safety and reform where offenders can get off drugs, improve their education, and develop the work skills they need so that they are less likely to reoffend. I pay tribute to our brave prison officers and probation staff.
Over the next couple of months I shall lay out my plans for prison reform, and set out plans to modernise the courts so that we can continue to have a world-leading justice system.
I am due to meet James Munby next week to discuss that issue in more detail. Some progress has been made in opening up the family courts, but there is, of course, a balance to be struck between highly sensitive issues and opening them up fully. I will look at the issue in more detail.
I am delighted to tell my hon. Friend that this summer the Legal Aid Agency pulled the plug on its contract with Public Interest Lawyers, who will no longer be ambulance-chasing our brave service personnel. Legal aid should support vulnerable people in our society, and should not be used to pursue spurious cases against the armed forces who do so much to serve our country.
May I join colleagues in welcoming the new Justice Secretary and her team to their roles?
The Government created the toxic conditions for the record levels of violence, drug finds and deaths throughout the prison system by reducing the number of prison officers by a third, yet the former Prisons Minister spent much of his time at the Dispatch Box this year telling me quite proudly about his Department’s successful recruitment drive. The Justice Secretary did not seem to have the figures with her earlier when she answered a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Jenny Chapman), so I will help her out. Can she explain why we have 421 fewer full-time equivalent front-line prison officers working in our public prisons than we did a year ago?
Since the Government’s probation privatisation, concerns have repeatedly been raised about the quality of pre-sentence reports for the courts as a result of arbitrary targets set. The probation inspectorate has this month described that as a persistent problem leading to inappropriate sentences being handed down. Vital safeguarding checks, such as domestic violence checks with police and child protection checks with children’s services, are not taking place prior to sentencing. Will the Justice Secretary today commit to an urgent review so that the public, probation professionals and sentencers can have confidence that when convicted criminals are sentenced, those deciding on them have all the necessary safeguarding evidence available?
I thank my hon. Friend for that question. Some of the problems in society are magnified in our prisons. As the Prime Minister said, if we are going to have a country that works for everyone, prison reform is very much a part of that, including on literacy, training, work in prisons and employment opportunities when people are released.
English law has had a huge impact, spreading the rule of law around the world. It is the law of choice in over a quarter of jurisdictions, and Brexit gives us even more opportunities to promote this. I will be championing our £25 billion legal services industry as a key part of post-Brexit global Britain.
May I start by welcoming the Justice Committee’s report on court and tribunal fees? We are intending to respond, and we are also going to publish the review of changes to employment tribunal fees in due course. This is an important area and we will do that.
One hundred babies resided in mother and baby units in English prisons in 2015. Prisons do an excellent job in making these environments as pleasant as possible and babies are able to spend time away from the prison with nominated carers. However, knowing the importance of the early years for child development, it is essential that we consider alternative ways of dealing with female offenders, including those with young children and babies and other caring responsibilities.
Further to a previous question, I have many constituents who cannot get access to employment tribunals because the fees introduced during the last Parliament have proved prohibitive. Will the Minister promise to make a statement to the House on the impact of those fees?
As the hon. Gentleman will have heard, we recognise that we need to produce our review—which we are going to publish—and to respond to the Justice Committee’s report. Those documents will be available in the Vote Office, and that will happen in due course. We are committed to doing that.
Effective court administration is a very different matter from retaining inefficient and costly court buildings. The question is whether the closures are going hand in hand with investment, efficiency and the best use of technologies in the surrounding courts—not least in Bury, Mr Speaker.
My hon. Friend is right. We need a programme of transformation that maintains the very high quality of our legal system—I am sure Members would agree that it is one of the best in the world—but we want to make it the most modern as well, and that is what we are doing. We are investing £1 billion, we have saved a Shard-load of paper, as I mentioned earlier, and we are going to do a lot more, so that our courts can benefit from the digital revolution that every other part of society is already benefiting from.
My constituent’s 17-year-old son Shaquan was murdered last year in Brockley. Will the Minister meet me and Sharon, Shaquan’s mother, to discuss the repeated failings in our justice system that mean that his killer is still walking the streets?
My hon. Friend will be aware that the transfer of prisoners from one prison to another is based on a careful assessment of the risks involved. I am sure that that will have taken place in this case, but I would be happy to discuss the matter with him in more detail if he wants to do so.
Does the Secretary of State accept that the Human Rights Act 1998 is an indispensable part of the Good Friday agreement and that, whatever the plans are for elsewhere, the Government, as a co-guarantor of the agreement, are obligated to retain the Act in Northern Ireland?
The UK has led the world in human rights, from Magna Carta to habeas corpus, and the Government are committed to bringing forward a British Bill of Rights further to build on those ancient protections. The Prime Minister has already met Nicola Sturgeon to make sure that the UK works together—[Hon. Members: “This is about Northern Ireland.”] As the Secretary of State said, we intend to meet all those across the United Kingdom who have concerns about this.
Over the summer I visited the job club at North Sea Camp prison in my constituency, which was set up at the behest of prisoners there. Does the Minister agree that some of the best examples of rehabilitation are to be found in category D prisons? Will he come and see that prison so that we can learn about what really good rehabilitation can do for prisoners’ life chances across the wider prison estate?
Half an hour ago, the Secretary of State said that when the Human Rights Act is repealed it will be replaced with a new British Bill of Rights that will include additional human rights. What additional human rights will there be?
I received assurances from the Government that the post-implementation review of tribunal fees would be published late last year. Nine months on and after thousands more discrimination cases, we are still waiting. Why has it taken so long for the Government to get a move on and publish the review? Will the Government follow the Scottish Government by abolishing tribunal fees completely—that is Scotland, not Northern Ireland?
Ensuring high standards of nuclear safety and security will always be a top priority for the Government. On Sellafield, I can assure the House that there is no safety risk to site staff or the public, and it is wrong to suggest otherwise.
As the hon. Gentleman knows more than anyone, Sellafield is a uniquely challenging site that contains the legacy of the UK’s earliest nuclear programmes, when nuclear waste was dumped with no plan for how it would be disposed of safely. The Government have been turning that around in order to clean up Sellafield as safely, cost-effectively and quickly as possible, which is an enormously complex task.
We have a strong regulatory system and all operators are answerable to an independent regulator. The Office for Nuclear Regulation is satisfied—it has confirmed that again this morning—that Sellafield is safe. The regulation of facilities is the ONR’s top priority with a team of around 50 inspectors deployed. The ONR requires the site to improve continuously. The ONR has confirmed that none of the issues raised in the “Panorama” programme is new. The ONR operates transparently. The issues facing Sellafield have been reported to Parliament in the ONR’s annual report and accounts, in which the ONR concluded that important progress has been made.
I thank the Minister for his response. The safety and security of Sellafield are the most important considerations for everyone working at the site. Safety is non-negotiable. As a former third-generation Sellafield worker, I know that the Sellafield workforce are acutely aware of its responsibilities towards the entire community and the country as a whole. As such, I welcome the interest of journalists and politicians—anyone and everyone—in the work undertaken at Sellafield. Visibility and accountability for that work should be welcomed. I would like to see more of it and I would like to see that done in a robust and responsible way. That is why the work of the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee is so important.
As the Minister pointed out, the truth is that Sellafield is a unique site, hosting a unique and complex set of engineering challenges that have arisen over decades—arguably the most difficult engineering challenges anywhere in the world. Sellafield is a publicly owned site. The work of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, Sellafield Ltd and the rest of the supply chain is undertaken in the national interest using public money. Will the Minister commit today to long-term, predictable budgeting for Sellafield so that greater benefits can be gained and economies of scale achieved at the site? Public accountability for the work should not only be welcomed, but insisted upon, so it is vital that the NDA is allocated the resources necessary to discharge its responsibilities to our nation and my community.
In addition, it is essential that the industry regulator has the resources it requires to regulate effectively and efficiently. Will the Minister commit to providing the regulator with the resources it says it needs? I note that the regulator told “Panorama” that it was happy with progress being made at Sellafield. Will he ask the regulator to respond to the allegations made by the programme on a point-by-point basis? Does he agree, as I do, that the NDA was right to change the operating model at Sellafield and to replace Nuclear Management Partners? Does he also agree that the workforce should be commended for the work done in progressing the clean-up mission to date?
Crucially, in welcoming the renewed focus that “Panorama” has given to the work under way at Sellafield, will the Minister commit his Department to working with me, my community and the Sellafield workforce to acknowledge Sellafield as a national asset? The globally unique engineering challenges at Sellafield, accompanied with a truly world-class, highly skilled workforce, provide enormous opportunities for my community and the UK to become the global centre of excellence for the nuclear industry. Meeting the challenges of Sellafield places us in a unique position to meet the challenges facing the nuclear industry around the world, and we must utilise these skills. This should be worth billions to the UK economy. Alongside the development of the Moorside power station, my community should become one of the fastest growing economies anywhere in the UK. Will the Minister and his Department work with me, the local workforce and the local supply chain to make this a reality?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his response, and I agree with him 100% about the non-negotiability of nuclear safety. There can be no disagreement on that, and I am glad that he recognises the progress being made all the time at Sellafield. I wish to place on record the Government’s appreciation for the difficult work done by the many people who work there. We have the most regulated and safest nuclear industry in the world. I do not want to encourage any sense of complacency about that, but it is a fact. Any nuclear power station in the UK must comply with our stringent nuclear safety laws, which are overseen by a robust industry regulator. We lead the world with our skills and expertise in this area.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the regulator, which is clearly a massively important part of this landscape of protecting the public. As I said in my opening statement, the regulator has said very clearly that it is satisfied that Sellafield is safe, and it has repeated that again to our officials today. As he knows, the NDA has put out a detailed rebuttal of all the points made in the “Panorama” documentary, which I have watched; I think they were all rebutted robustly in the programme. As he knows, none of those points is new. Funding is incredibly important and it is done on a very significant scale; as he knows, it costs £2 billion a year to clean up Sellafield safely.
The hon. Gentleman asked me whether we agreed with the change in the operating model and, yes, of course, we do; it is generally recognised that that is a much better way of working. As I have said, I am assured that the regulator is doing its job, that progress is being made and that Sellafield is safe, and I wholly accept his offer to work closely with him to make sure that that is more widely understood and appreciated.
Only last week, I was at Hinkley Point B seeing the very high safety standards the nuclear industry practises. Does the Minister agree that being able to have an open and sensible discussion about nuclear safety issues is a key part of keeping our industry safe? Does he also agree that we have one of the most effective regulation systems in the world, which has meant that we have had many decades of safe, clean power generated? Sellafield plays a key part in that in this country.
I thank my hon. Friend for that positive and constructive intervention. This is a massively important issue on which no Government can show any complacency, but I believe that we have set up a proper framework and a robust system of transparency and accountability. Considerable progress continues to be made, but the safety record continues to be an impressive one, which is why countries all around the world come to see how we do it.
Yesterday evening’s television report on Sellafield was profoundly disturbing, and my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Mr Reed) was absolutely right to request this urgent question—I thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting it. My hon. Friend expressed his concerns at the revelations and referred to the importance of the storage and reprocessing facility for his constituency. Of course, the House must raise such concerns on behalf of the country.
I want to focus on a number of questions on which I believe the Minister should give the House either further information or reassurance, and preferably both. On minimum staffing levels, will he confirm that as recently as five days ago a formal notice was sent to the management, raising the unions’ concern about critical manning levels and the ability to comply with the appropriate procedures and practices when minimum staffing levels are not met?
Will the Minister also say whether he agrees with Dr Rex Strong, the head of nuclear safety, who said in last night’s programme that not meeting the minimum safety standards or staffing levels did not mean that there was a safety risk?
In 2013, the manager of the site, Nuclear Management Partners, produced its somewhat ironically entitled excellence plan, cataloguing the safety problems and the critical nature of the infrastructure with respect to both electricity and water supply on the site. Why did the Government not insist that further resources—staffing and, of course, financial resources—be invested in the site to clean it up at that point? The Minister will know that expenditure in 2012-13 was £7,348 million, with £3,157 million from the Department of Energy and Climate Change itself. The year following that report, the figure had fallen to £5,345 million. Will he explain why, after such a damning report, the resources going into the site decreased? Will he also confirm that the cost estimates for the clean-up of the site have increased at an annual estimate from £25.2 million to £47.9 million?
The programme also cited problems with alarms, and it was said that these were turned off repeatedly, without checking. Will the Minister confirm that that practice is no longer in force? Finally, will he confirm that he has absolute confidence in Dr Rex Strong as head of nuclear safety at Sellafield and John Clarke, the chief executive of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority?
Again, I thank the hon. Gentleman for a constructive response, which reflects the cross-party concern to get this absolutely right with no equivocation. Issues were raised in the programme about minimum safety levels. I think they were responded to adequately in the programme. We were reassured that the NDA always has enough people on duty to maintain the site safely, and if the work cannot be done safely it will not get it done. I think the programme and the response to it have reassured us on that front.
As I said in my opening statement, cleaning up Sellafield safely costs £2 billion a year, and maintaining the NDA’s overall annual spend on cleaning up the UK’s nuclear sites at some £3 billion reflects the continuing importance that the Government place on cleaning up the civil nuclear legacy and Sellafield.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the reaction to the number of alarms raised—another issue raised in the programme. Those alarms, as he knows, are not unusual, given the types of material that people are working with and do not necessarily mean that there is a safety issue. However, we are reassured that staff are briefed never to be complacent and always react to alarms if they are serious, which is a point that was made in rebuttals in the programme.
On levels of confidence, yes, we do have confidence in the NDA. We also have a great deal of confidence in the independent regulator, which has made it quite clear that, as far as it is concerned, the programme does not raise any new issues and that Sellafield is safe.
“Panorama” has historically served an extremely useful function in this country by shining a spotlight on some extremely important issues and throwing up some extremely challenging questions, and this programme was no exception to that rule. As we have discussed before, it is important that we have proper transparency and proper accountability on such a fundamental matter. Having watched the programme, I thought there was adequate balance in it, in the sense that the issues were raised and space was given for what I thought was adequate rebuttal of them in the rebuttals published by the NDA and the regulator, and the confirmation made to us about their view that nothing has changed in their perception of Sellafield. That is a matter of record and it is up to the BBC whether it continues to extend the balance shown in the programme and reflect that reality.
I welcome the opportunity to address the matter, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Copeland (Mr Reed) on successfully tabling his question. The issue is an important one and our prime concern on the Scottish National party Benches, as it is across the House, is the safety of staff and of the communities around Sellafield. The harsh lesson of incidents at nuclear power plants is that where safety is concerned, there can be no shortcuts in any circumstances. The Minister said that there would be no complacency on the Government’s part. What assurances has he sought that the issues identified in the BBC “Panorama” programme, particularly those related to staffing levels, will not be repeated at the Sellafield site?
The issue of a permanent storage facility for the high level toxic legacy that we have has caused some consternation over the years. What progress has been made in identifying a safe and secure deep geological storage facility? We know that the economic costs in the nuclear industry are high, but the cost of allaying security and safety concerns is astronomical. If the price is too high to pay, will we scrap the nuclear obsession with Hinkley? What assurances can the Minister give us that there will no repercussions or attempted retribution for the whistleblower?
On the last point, I can reassure the hon. Gentleman. Whistleblowers always have a role to play. They are part of the landscape of accountability and transparency, and anyone watching that programme will have reached their own view on the motivations of those individuals. It is not an issue for Government. The hon. Gentleman sought assurances that issues would not be repeated. The critical thing, as we have discussed, is this House’s confidence that the architecture of transparency and accountability in the process, the role of the regulator and the way in which the regulator reports to this House is sufficiently robust. I have not heard any comments suggesting that the House does not have confidence in that process.
The hon. Gentleman is right to say that we are dealing with an unsatisfactory legacy of the past, when things were not thought through properly and were poorly designed. Now, when we look at new nuclear, we see that the process has changed. The decommissioning process is negotiated up front. The hon. Gentleman is right that permanent long-term solutions must be found. When we are clearer about that, we will make announcements at the appropriate time.
I am delighted that my hon. Friend makes that point. It is a measure of the importance that the Government—effectively, a new Administration—attach to the issue that last week Sellafield was visited by not one Minister but two: Baroness Neville-Rolfe, who leads on energy in the Department, and, I am delighted to say, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury. That is significant in itself.
I thank my hon. Friend and neighbour the Member for Copeland (Mr Reed) for bringing this important matter before the House. I have many constituents who work at Sellafield and they have been in touch with me, as has the local Prospect union, because they are concerned about what the “Panorama” programme said about safe staffing levels. Those staff are committed to the highest standards of safety. They are a huge asset to our nuclear industry and they feel undermined by what was said in the programme. Can the Minister reassure my constituents and others working at Sellafield that there will be continued investment to fund the programmes and skills training there and show that the staff there are truly valued for the work that they do?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving me the opportunity to reaffirm again the Government’s appreciation for the extremely challenging and incredibly important work that is done by people on the site. It is deeply impressive that, given the complexity of the site and the legacy—this is really difficult stuff—Sellafield’s safety record over the past three years is the best that it has ever been. I quite understand why residents and people working at the site may have been upset and disturbed by the programme last night, but I hope that my statement and corroborating statements from other Members have reassured them that as far as the Government are concerned—not least because the independent regulator attaches enormous importance to Sellafield, as reflected in the resources committed to monitoring the site on a very proactive basis—Sellafield is safe.
I appreciate that the Minister has a duty to offer reassurance, but I have to warn him that the content and tone of what we have heard today come dangerously close to complacency. The people who have been responsible for the historical errors of judgment and underinvestment are still involved in the industry today. These words will be heard with concern in the north of Scotland, where we are seeing nuclear waste shipped out from the former Dounreay plant. Will the Minister have the risk assessment for that operation scrutinised independently of the people who were responsible for making the plans?
The right hon. Gentleman is an experienced Member of Parliament so I take seriously his warning about tripping over a boundary into complacency. I said at the start that I was determined not to do that. What I am trying to do is reflect genuine empathy with people who live close to the site and who work on the site, who will have been unsettled by the programme last night, which raised nothing new and which, I am keen to stress, in the eyes of the regulator does not change its position in relation to the safety of Sellafield.
The right hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I give some priority to that. He knows the reality of the situation at Sellafield, which is that as a legacy of the cold war, vast amounts of nuclear waste, dumped with no plan for how it would be disposed of safely, languished for decades without anyone properly tackling the problem. The priority for us is to do what we are doing now, which is to continue working to turn that round and clean up Sellafield as safely, cost-effectively and quickly as possible.
Given what the Minister says about transparency, accountability and the paramount importance of safety in the nuclear industry, and given the Prime Minister’s clear concerns about security and the more widespread concerns about the economics, can the hon. Gentleman give us an assurance that the Government will come back to this House before making a final decision on Hinkley C?
My constituency is directly across the Irish sea from Sellafield. I have visited Sellafield twice. My constituents contacted me last night. Like me, they watched that programme and were deeply unsettled by it. Given the catalogue of safety hazards that were highlighted last night, and also those that have been documented since Sellafield, and prior to that Windscale, were opened, and the history of both recorded and unrecorded discharges of radioactive waste into the Irish sea, will the Minister commit to working directly with the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority to ensure that an accelerated programme of decommissioning is put in place which will protect communities on both sides of the Irish sea and also ensure the safety of the staff there?
I understand the point that the hon. Lady makes on behalf of her constituents. That reinforces the point that I was trying to make earlier about the importance of this statement to try to give some reassurance to all communities that may be affected. I hope that I have done so. As I said, we have confidence in the NDA. We monitor its work closely in terms of both value for money and pace.
The Minister has talked a number of times about cleaning up Sellafield as “cost-effectively” as possible, yet it was only when the Public Accounts Committee in the last Parliament looked closely at the issue that the Government moved to remove Nuclear Management Partners, the American consortium that was running Sellafield. Will he now undertake, as the new Minister, not only to visit, but to make sure that, in all the complex engineering work on this very complex site—I think three of the top 10 engineering challenges internationally are at Sellafield—the difficulty does not overblow the challenge of benchmarking engineering projects in similar fields, so that we get good value for money for the taxpayer while carrying out the important clean-up?
I take this opportunity to congratulate the hon. Lady on the extremely effective way she has chaired that Committee. The point she makes about the role of the PAC in this is really important in terms of reinforcing the framework of transparency and accountability around this incredibly complex process. This process carries a huge bill for the taxpayer, so it is absolutely imperative for a Government of any colour to drive it forward in as responsible and cost-effective a way as possible, with value for money being a prime consideration, but I take on board her suggestion very seriously.
The UK Government’s entire nuclear policy, from Trident to Hinkley, is nothing short of appalling. If any of these allegations by the BBC are found to be true, it will surely be another in a long list of reasons to move away from this nuclear obsession. Does the Minister not concede that he should consider taking a leaf out of the Scottish Government’s book and ban the creation of new nuclear power stations to minimise the amount of waste going to Sellafield?
The nuclear industry is normally a highly regulated sector. Has the Minister considered how his Department can work with Sellafield to ensure that there is faster implementation of safety measures and that the issue of storage—a very clear problem—is addressed as quickly and as safely as possible to ensure the smooth running of this vital plant?
Order. I am grateful to the Minister and to colleagues.
Savings (Government Contributions) Bill
Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)
Mr Chancellor of the Exchequer, supported by the Prime Minister, Mr David Gauke, Jane Ellison, Gavin Barwell, Simon Kirby, Richard Harrington and Mr Rob Wilson, presented a Bill to make provision for, and in connection with, government bonuses in respect of additions to savings accounts and other investment plans.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 59) with explanatory notes (Bill 59-EN).