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Topical Questions

Volume 624: debated on Tuesday 25 April 2017

In November I committed that the Government would invest an additional £100 million annually to recruit 2,500 prison officers. I can confirm that our recruitment figures show that we are on track to deliver that. On 3 April we launched the new “You at your best” recruitment campaign to encourage more people to apply. We also launched the new Unlocked graduate programme, which is offering more than 60 places this year.

It is vital that we strengthen the frontline to turn our prisons into places of safety and reform, and to reduce unacceptable levels of violence. That is my No. 1 priority as Secretary of State. Of course that will take time—we will not fix our problems in weeks or months—but the figures show that we are making real progress.

With three former Secretaries of State, including the right hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) last year, taking the view that families in Hull deserve to find out what happened to their babies’ ashes, why does the current Justice Secretary refuse to back those families’ calls for an independent inquiry in Hull?

I am very sympathetic to the hon. Lady’s concerns and I offer my sympathy to her constituents. We are supportive of local historical investigations, but we are not planning to order an historical inquiry in Hull or elsewhere. Hull has made significant improvements, including putting in place measures to improve practices and communication between the cremation authority, local funeral directors and NHS trusts.

T2. Following the important work done by the parents of my constituent Sean Morley, who was tragically killed in a hit-and-run incident in Bedworth, and the representations that I have made to the Secretary of State, will she confirm whether she intends to see through the progress that has been made towards much tougher sentences for dangerous drivers in the next Parliament, should the Conservatives be returned to government? (909785)

Yesterday the Leader of the Opposition confirmed that a Labour Government would launch inquiries into blacklisting and Orgreave; the current Government have blocked all such efforts. Successive Conservative Justice Secretaries have also refused to release papers concerning the Shrewsbury 24. As her final act, will the Justice Secretary do the decent thing, review that decision, and release the papers to give those men and their families a chance of justice?

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman understands that we are currently in purdah, so we are not able to make announcements at this point.

According to the legal commentator Joshua Rozenberg, this is the Secretary of State’s very last Justice questions, so I will give her one last chance. In March, the Lord Chief Justice said that the Secretary of State was “completely and utterly wrong” to say that she could not speak up for the judiciary in the face of personal abuse. Will she finally admit that rather than doing her duty, she kowtowed to her friends in the press?

I am a great believer in a strong, independent judiciary, but another bulwark of our democracy is a free press, and I do not think that Ministers should be saying what it is and is not acceptable for the press to print.

T6. Colchester is home to the Military Corrective Training Centre. If the Government are returned to power, will the Secretary of State visit the MCTC with me to see its education work, in particular, and to find out what civilian prisons can learn from it? (909789)

I have heard great things about that facility in Colchester, and I would be delighted to come and visit my hon. Friend, perhaps in the next few weeks.

T3. When I was recently called to do jury service, I got the chance to experience at first hand the current state of our courts. The jury canteen had to close down because it malfunctioned, the ladies’ toilets malfunctioned, the water machine malfunctioned and the computers malfunctioned, meaning that juries could not even be chosen. Despite the fantastic and very patient work of the employees of the court system, the whole thing was a mess, and it was in need of substantial financial investment. The Justice Secretary should not be proud of her record on this matter, so what is she going to do about it? (909786)

What we are doing about it is investing £1 billion in modernising our courts, bringing more cases online and improving the physical facilities, including all aspects of the way in which our courts operate. I launched a joint statement with the judiciary late last year about precisely that.

T8. I recently visited Dickson House, an approved premises in Fareham that provides support and accommodation to ex-offenders as they transition to life outside prison. Will the Minister join me in paying tribute to the team at Dickson House, and explain what more support is available to ensure that ex-offenders secure housing so that they do not fall into homelessness and, thereafter, criminality? (909791)

I pay tribute to the work done by the staff at Dickson House and all who work in approved premises around the country—they do a great job. Accommodating ex-offenders when they leave approved premises is an important issue. We are working with the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Local Government Association on ways in which we can improve this, including by improving statutory guidance.

T4. My constituent, 29-year-old father Alex Everington, was the victim of a road crash that left him paralysed from the neck down. His dad Ian said:“He can never take care of himself. He will never have a normal life…How do you explain this to a 10-year-old child?” Ian Maughan was found guilty of causing serious injury by dangerous driving. He had taken cannabis before the crash, and he had 81 previous offences, including a catalogue of motoring offences. At the time of the crash, he had been banned for careless driving. He received a sentence of just three years and four months, despite having destroyed Alex’s life. Will the Minister pledge to consider the effectiveness of driving bans and, crucially, to look again at the length of sentences for causing injury by dangerous driving? (909787)

I firmly believe that the punishment must fit the crime. In the case of dangerous driving, there is a need for the law to be toughened up, which was why we launched a consultation to achieve precisely that last year. Obviously a general election is coming up, but if a Conservative Government are elected, I am sure we will see through these vital reforms.

Section 33 of the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015 is landmark legislation that makes revenge porn a specific offence. In Eastbourne, we have just had a high-profile case in which a serial offender walked free with a caution. One of his victims was a minor, and to add further insult to injury, images posted with incitements are still online. What more can the Government do to make sure that this groundbreaking legislation really delivers justice?

My hon. Friend is known for the way in which she has highlighted in the House such incidents of criminality and really pressed the case for proper and effective punishment. In relation to this particular incident, the offence is relatively new, and the good news is that many people have come forward to report instances of disclosure during the short period since it came into force. There have been a number of prosecutions, with more than 60 convictions so far. It is early days, but I agree that the Crown Prosecution Service needs to treat these cases very seriously.

T5. The Government undertook by this month to renegotiate transforming rehabilitation payment structures as a result of community rehabilitation companies experiencing significant difficulties with the contracts. For how many of the 21 community rehabilitation companies have new payment arrangements now been agreed and put in place? (909788)

We have been working on this issue very carefully, and we will announce the results in due course.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement that a fresh Conservative Government would be committed to ongoing prison reform. Will she use an early reintroduction of the Prisons and Courts Bill as an opportunity to follow the evidence given to the Justice Committee about placing our excellent national preventive mechanism on a statutory basis to fit in with our international obligations?

I thank the Chairman of the Justice Committee for his question. I know how committed he is to prison reform, given the leadership that he and the Committee have shown. I have to tell him that our manifesto will be announced in due course, and the Prime Minister will be making such decisions.

T7. This afternoon in Parliament, the families of four British soldiers murdered by the IRA in the Hyde Park bomb are launching their campaign to bring the chief suspect of the atrocity, John Downey, to justice and to ensure that no terrorist is ever allowed to act with impunity within the United Kingdom. Will the Secretary of State meet Members and peers who support the victims’ campaign to consider the Government making exceptional funding available to remedy a situation in which the victims have been denied justice for 35 years? (909790)

May I say that our deepest sympathies remain with those affected by the dreadful Hyde Park bombings? Those terrible terrorist atrocities were really dreadful for the nation at the time. Decisions on legal aid in such cases are made through an independent process. A fresh determination was given by the Legal Aid Agency on 2 February, but my understanding is that there is a right of review and that the case is still ongoing with the agency. I therefore cannot comment further at this time, and a decision would have to be made before any meetings occurred.

My constituents very much welcome the Department’s decision not to proceed with the change to probate fees because the increases would have fallen disproportionately on London and the south-east, given the cost of housing there. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the next Conservative Government will not again proceed on such a basis?

As the Secretary of State said a moment ago—I think she was about to say this again—I am afraid that we are not in a position to say what will be in the manifesto. However, I thank my hon. Friend for his comments, and we will obviously take full account of them.

T9. I am helping families across Southwark who have been denied access to justice as a direct result of the coalition’s legal aid cuts. Three years ago, the Children’s Commissioner said that those cuts were undermining human rights. Was the former Liberal Democrat Justice Minister speaking for the Government when he promised a review and did he break that promise in not delivering it, or was his promise a cynical ploy to deflect attention from the damage his cuts were having on my community and the rest of the country? (909792)

As the hon. Gentleman is aware, I know Simon Hughes well, having been his opponent in the 1987 general election. I think that I am still the president of Bermondsey Conservatives.

No, I deny that I am the only member—we have quite a few.

The Government have announced the timetable for the review, which has been welcomed. It was odd that Simon Hughes called for a review when he was the Minister, but it was a Liberal Democrat press release, and we all know about those.

Pictures have recently emerged of people on the streets of Derby city centre that reveal the shocking effect of Black Mamba and the zombie-like state the drug can induce. The police in Derby have been very proactive in taking a stance on this matter, but can the Secretary of State assure me that everything is being done to tackle the availability and use of this type of drug?

I completely agree with my hon. Friend about the effect that such drugs have on people both outside and inside prison. One of our key priorities was to roll out testing, which we did by September, to detect such substances and eliminate their use in prison.

T10. Under this Government, poor people have had their legal aid cut by 40% and thousands upon thousands of people have been denied an employment tribunal because they cannot afford it. Are the Government proud to be on the side of the rich, the powerful and the bad bosses? (909793)

It is, of course, a union campaign to talk about employment tribunal fees. Let us be clear that the number of people taking up cases about the workplace has increased, not gone down—it is up to 92,000. Those people are being helped by a free service from ACAS, which the Labour party used to support. Fewer cases are going to tribunal because of the work of ACAS.

Exclusion zones are an important tool to protect victims, but for those living on a county boundary, an exclusion zone that just covers the county is not particularly helpful. Will the Minister undertake to look into that?

My hon. Friend does great work on behalf of victims in his constituency. He raises an important point about the way in which exclusion zones, which are there to protect victims, are designed and operated. I am sure that that is something we will look at in great detail.

Websites such as Craigslist are being used by corrupt individuals to advertise free accommodation in return for sex. Does the Secretary of State agree that that is currently happening within the law and that a review needs to take place so that the people who are exploiting extremely vulnerable young women in that way face the full force of the law?

How many foreign nationals do we have in our prisons, and what steps are being taken to send them back to prison in their own country, at the expense of their own Governments?

We are taking active steps to ensure that every foreign national who should be deported from our prisons is deported. Since 2010, 33,000 foreign nationals have been deported from our prisons. In 2016-17, a record 5,810 were deported, and I am sure that that progress will continue.

Would we not be more reliably informed about justice if we were not hearing from a Tory Minister whose friend the Prime Minister has called a snap election on 8 June, about a fortnight before the Director of Public Prosecutions was due to adjudicate on 30 Tory MPs who are being investigated for election fraud at the last election?

The Prime Minister is absolutely right to call a general election. We need strong and stable leadership of this country, and we need to ensure that the Prime Minister has a mandate to deliver for Brexit and beyond.

The all-party group on preventing modern slavery, chaired in an excellent manner by the sadly departing right hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart), heard from the parents of a young man who had been imprisoned for 15 years as a slave. The culprits were sent to prison for only two and a half years. Will the Justice Secretary agree to speak to the Sentencing Council about the severity of sentences for those who imprison our fellow citizens as slaves?

First, I echo my hon. Friend in paying tribute to the right hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) for her work on modern slavery. I also pay tribute to our Prime Minister, who has made huge strides in putting people away for these heinous crimes. We are doing more, and I am working closely with the Home Secretary to make sure that we crack down on this further.

In correspondence with the Criminal Cases Review Commission over recent months, I have repeatedly asked it to release and review crucial evidence that is vital to the case of one of my constituents. However, the CCRC has been less than helpful. As the deadline for the evidence to be deleted approaches, my constituent’s chances of justice could be killed for good. Will the Minister step in to ensure that the crucial evidence is released and reviewed so that justice can be done?

The dedicated governor and staff at HMP Bristol do a brilliant job, but right now they are struggling with inadequate staffing ratios, prisoner use of the dangerous drug Spice, and poorly delivered privatised maintenance contracts. When will the Government give the prison in my constituency the tools it needs to do the job?

I can tell the hon. Lady that when I visited HMP Bristol I found some fantastically dedicated prison officers who are doing excellent work. We are investing £100 million to recruit 2,500 officers across the country, and we are on track with that recruitment.

In order to make a claim under the rape clause, a woman has to sign a form stating:

“I believe the non-consensual exemption applies to my child”.

Will the Government explain how that can possibly be in the best interests of the child and in respect of our duties under the UN convention on the rights of the child?

The hon. Lady does not seem to understand that this is about supporting victims of rape and domestic abuse. This approach is crucial to protect women who are faced with very difficult circumstances—[Interruption.] I am answering. As part of these reforms, we have made sure that the victims are able to use third sector professionals to endorse their claim while they receive support to help them to cope and recover. No Government have done more to help victims.

Order. May we please have two short, one-sentence questions? That is what topical questions is supposed to be about.

Will the Justice Secretary have it in her heart to look into the case of Charlie Gard, a very sick eight-month old baby boy with a rare mitochondrial depletion condition who is legally unable to leave Great Ormond Street hospital to receive treatment in the US that might just save his life? His family are constituents of mine and my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra), and they have raised £1.25 million to get Charlie to the United States. This is a complex legal case, but if the Justice Secretary has any powers to intervene I plead with her to do the right thing.

I will say in the hon. Lady’s defence that there were probably a number of semi-colons in there, but I accept that this is a very important matter.

This case is particularly emotive and has been in the media. As I understand it, clinicians at Great Ormond Street have made a judgment on this case. I think that that should be respected.

Knowing the huge cross-party support for better justice for victims of criminal driving, will the Minister today commit to bring in the legislation that has been promised before the end of this year if the Government are re-elected?

I understand that the hon. Gentleman has been campaigning on this issue for some time, but we cannot make commitments as we are in purdah.