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Topical Questions

Volume 639: debated on Tuesday 24 April 2018

I am delighted to announce that we have met and exceeded our October 2016 target of recruiting an additional 2,500 prison officers, with 3,111[Official Report, 1 May 2018, Vol. 640, c. 2MC.] full-time equivalent staff joining the prison workforce seven months ahead of schedule, 90% of whom will be on the landings by the summer. Prison officers are some of our finest public servants, and I am happy to see individuals seeking out a career in our Prison Service. Along with the rest of the workforce, those bright new recruits will ensure that prisons are safe and decent, tackle the unacceptable levels of drugs in prisons and cut the rate of reoffending.

Will the Secretary of State outline what steps are being taken to secure employment opportunities for prisoners?

My hon. Friend is right to raise that. One of the best ways in which we can reduce reoffending is by increasing employment, which is why we have the New Futures Network coming in. I am keen to focus on ensuring that we provide employment opportunities to prisoners as much as possible.

The Windrush scandal is one of the cruellest examples of unaccountable state power targeting the vulnerable, defenceless and innocent that I can remember. Senior figures describe our immigration law as complex and unintelligible to everyone but working specialists, so I was disappointed to hear the Home Secretary say yesterday that people affected by the Windrush scandal will have “no need for lawyers”. I am sure that the Justice Secretary will understand why those words will not do, so will he guarantee today that all those who have been put into this kind of situation will have access to the necessary legal advice to help them when they need it most?

The Home Secretary set out a comprehensive plan yesterday for how we will make the process much easier for those who have been affected. For example, those who have retired to another country will be able to obtain British citizenship much more easily to allow them to come here without great difficulties involving visas and so on. The Home Secretary also set out how we are going to put in place arrangements to ensure that there is compensation for those who deserve it.

The Government’s reckless approach to our justice system means that criminal barristers have now been forced into co-ordinated action and are refusing to take up legal aid work due to changes to the advocates’ graduated fee scheme. Against all convention, the Government have denied parliamentary time to debate that properly. The Criminal Bar Association made a formal request that the Ministry of Justice delay, withdraw, amend or reconsider the implementation of the statutory instrument. If the Government will not listen to the views of parliamentarians, will they at least listen to barristers, put the new scheme on hold and set about fixing it?

On parliamentary time, my understanding is that we are waiting for information from the Labour party. On the substance of the issue, let us remember that reforms to the AGFS were worked out with the Bar Council and the Criminal Bar Association. The reforms are necessary to ensure that legal aid funds are distributed in an appropriate way, and that is why the reforms are being made.

T3. In the spirit of your advice, Mr Speaker, can the Secretary of State confirm whether or not the Ministry of Justice will object to the Second Reading of the Service Animals (Offences) Bill on Friday? (904921)

As the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for South East Cambridgeshire (Lucy Frazer) pointed out, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs leads on this matter. The Government continue to look at this issue.

T2. Another week, another inquest into the death of a prisoner at HMP Nottingham. Three months on from the prison being declared fundamentally unsafe, what update can Ministers give us on the progress of the recovery plan and on the prison’s ongoing safety? (904920)

As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, there has been an urgent notification process. We have put a plan in place. I have now visited HMP Nottingham, and I pay tribute to Tom Wheatley, the governor, for the work he is doing. He has a much better care process in place, and he has highly trained staff. We expect to see improvements soon at HMP Nottingham.

T5. In Suffolk there is a growing problem in finding justices of the peace to chair family panels, which can be complex work in which experience and local knowledge are vital. Will the Lord Chancellor give consideration to resolving the problem in the short term by extending the retirement age for magistrates? (904923)

My hon. Friend makes an important point about the important role that magistrates play within our legal justice system. The Secretary of State told the House of Lords Constitution Committee that the judicial age in general is being looked at in the round.

T4. It is me again, as I am sure the Minister is delighted to see. The Welsh Government’s strategic review has been mentioned. Can he advise on the timeframe for when he will be meeting his counterpart in the Welsh Government for these vital talks? Can he also advise on how hon. Members on both sides of the House can get involved in that dialogue? (904922)

I will be meeting the Welsh Secretary specifically on this issue next week. We are setting up a meeting with the Head of the Welsh Government, who of course will be changing, and I would very much like the hon. Gentleman to join that meeting. I reiterate that, so long as offending rates in Wales remain as they are, although it is laudable that the Welsh Government wish to divert people away from prison, we currently need places for Welsh prisoners.

T7. In addition to asking the Minister whether he can confirm to the House that he has no objections to the Service Animals (Offences) Bill, may I ask what action he is taking to ensure that the justice system addresses new, dangerous and increasingly abundant drugs such as fentanyl? (904925)

Fentanyl is unbelievably dangerous and has contributed to nearly 20,000 deaths a year in the United States. We have underscored through the Crown Prosecution Service guidance for prosecuting people. Fentanyl is a class A drug, but 50 times more powerful than other drugs. People need to understand that even a tiny quantity of this drug is a serious danger to the person producing it, to the person supplying it and, above all, to the public, and must be prosecuted.

T9. Is the Minister aware of the looming crisis in criminal duty solicitors due to the increasing age profile? Data from the Law Society shows that in five to 10 years there could be insufficient numbers of criminal duty solicitors in many areas. Will the Government take action to address and protect this vital public service? (904927)

I am aware of the recent document produced by the Law Society. Of course, it is important that we have professionals at every level, that we have a diverse profession and that we encourage young people to join what is an excellent profession.

T8. The Government are entitled to feel a little perplexed by the Criminal Bar Association’s hostility to the new graduated fee scheme, given the CBA’s input into that scheme. Be that as it may, will the Minister confirm that the MOJ is prepared to communicate with the CBA to resolve this growing dispute? (904926)

My hon. Friend is right to say that in putting together this scheme discussions went on for two years with members of the Bar and the MOJ. They were calling for us to implement this scheme, so that is the scheme we have implemented. We are always willing to talk to members of the CBA and the Bar Council. Since I have been appointed, in the past three months, I have met the chairman of the Bar Council twice and the chair of the CBA twice.

Northern Ireland has just undergone the longest rape trial in its history, resulting in the acquittal of four men. The Department is carrying out a major review of that trial because of subsequent problems flowing from it. Will the Government—the Department—make a submission to that review, particularly looking at whether the accused should not be named until after a verdict is published?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. This is a long-standing and very sensitive issue, one my predecessors have looked at closely. We continue to look at it; there are arguments on both sides, and we need to examine the cases carefully before we rush to any judgment on this.

T10. My right hon. Friend will be aware that last year a pilot project allowed television cameras into courts to film and broadcast sentencing procedure. Will he say what assessment he has made of that pilot and what plans he now has to extend it further? (904928)

I know my right hon. Friend cares deeply about this important matter and he has raised it with me several times. Transparency is very important, and we are looking at the pilot. I am happy to update him, and I am looking forward to our meeting tomorrow with the Society of Editors.

When a person spends time in custody and the CPS then drops the case against them, as opposed to losing a case in court, they are not entitled to compensation, even when they have lost their home and everything. Does the Minister agree that that is a huge injustice? Will she say what she is doing about it?

Nick Hardwick, the former head of the Parole Board, made the case yesterday that it should be required to publish comprehensive explanations for the decisions it takes and that it should make public the names of the people who are making those decisions. May I urge my right hon. Friend to follow that advice as he undertakes his own review?

My hon. Friend is right to point out that I am undertaking my own review of that. The first step is to address the decision of the High Court on the existence of rule 25, which prohibits, in essence, any information being provided on Parole Board decisions. We will do that, but we also need to look more widely at how the Parole Board rules work—that includes the issues of transparency and of how the Parole Board can reconsider cases in particular circumstances.

The troubled Holme House prison in my constituency has had another damning report, this time from the Independent Monitoring Board, which talks of a shortage of staff, a lack of appropriate care for prisoners, a sustained drugs problem, and more violence against staff and between prisoners. Things do not seem to be getting any better. Will the Minister please take an interest in Holme House and ensure it gets the support it needs?

Absolutely. The central problem in Holme House is, of course, not the age of the building—it is relatively modern—but the drugs. So the first steps we are taking are to get more scanners, sniffer dogs and staff in place. It remains a very serious problem; the connection between the drugs, the violence and the suicide in Holme House is making it a particular area of focus for this Department.

What steps are the Government taking to improve the court experience for victims and for witnesses, because it can be a highly stressful and intimidating environment?

The MOJ is taking a number of steps to improve the position for victims and witnesses: we have introduced the ability to give evidence through video link, so people can give their evidence even before the hearing, which takes the stress out of it; and physically disabled people can give evidence by video link in another location. So we are trying to improve the Courts Service experience for everybody.

Most people know my constituency of Liverpool, Walton as the home of two premier league football clubs, but I think the Minister knows it better for the two prisons: HMP Liverpool, which was built in 1855, and Altcourse, which was built in 1997. Will he update the House on progress in the redevelopment of HMP Liverpool, and does he think that these Victorian prisons can ever be fit for purpose?

Unfortunately, as the hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) implied in his question, the age of a prison is not always the determining factor. We have significant challenges in relatively modern prisons. It is true in Liverpool that Altcourse has been performing better, and it is the newer prison. In Liverpool, we have provided a new multimillion pound fund for the repair of the windows across the estate, and we are looking at improving the conditions right across the estate. Stafford and Dartmoor show that it is possible to run good prisons in older, Victorian buildings.

I am grateful to the prisons Minister for meeting me recently to discuss the Farmer review, and I welcome his commitment to it. Will he update the House on the implementation of the Farmer review?

The Farmer review focused on the importance of families in rehabilitation. Prisoners’ links with families are central to reducing reoffending, and we have very strong evidence that when family links are kept, reoffending reduces. That means better family rooms and more family visits. In certain cases, prisons are having a lot of success piloting interactions between prisoners and, for example, the teachers of their children. All that is central, and the Farmer review is something for which we should be hugely grateful.

In October last year, the Government announced that they planned to increase the maximum penalty for death by dangerous driving. They also said that they would create a new offence of causing serious injury by careless driving. Six months on, we have still not seen any action. Will the Minister tell the House just when these vital changes will be implemented?

A year ago, virtually to the day, the legislative provisions of the Prisons and Courts Bill, which are necessary to implement Lord Briggs’s review of civil court structure, were lost in the Dissolution of Parliament. These important reforms are pressing and needed. Can the Secretary of State update us on when the Government intend to reintroduce legislation to enable the reforms to be progressed?

What I can say at this point is that I think we need to bring forward a number of aspects of that to help to modernise our court system. I hope to be able to make progress on that in the coming months.

Next week will be the six-month anniversary of the publication of the report by Bishop James Jones into the experience of the Hillsborough families. The report contains many recommendations that relate to the work of the Ministry of Justice. Will the Secretary of State explain when we will see action from the Government on those recommendations?

The position in relation to inquests and legal aid funding, as the hon. Lady may or may not know, is running alongside our legal aid review. I hope to be able to assure her that those matters are being looked at.

One of my constituents is fighting for justice, having suffered horrific physical and sexual abuse at Medomsley youth detention centre in the 1970s. Will my hon. Friend please update the House on the likely timescales for compensation and further convictions?

I thank my hon. Friend for the question. The case that he refers to is a tragedy, and I am aware of it. We are in the middle of the independent inquiry into child sex abuse, and the interim report is out this week. Officials from my Department are fully engaged with that, and we are conscious that in some institutions that the Department is responsible for allegations have been made that child abuse has taken place in the past. Once we have a handle on that totally, we can start talking about the possibility of compensation.

A failure to agree on arrangements in international family law risks leaving a serious gap in the legal framework for proceedings involving children with family connections to the UK. Can the Secretary of State confirm what contingency planning is being undertaken to deal with that risk?

It is really important that as we leave the EU we try to get arrangements similar to those that we have in relation to our cross-border workings through our court system. Family law is one of the important matters that we need to look at. I was very encouraged to see in the EU’s recent guidance that reciprocal arrangements in relation to family are one area that they are particularly interested in.