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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 639: debated on Tuesday 24 April 2018


The Secretary of State was asked—

Court Closures

1. What assessment his Department has made of the effect of court closures on access to justice. (904894)

We are looking at ways to improve our justice system and to modernise the delivery of justice in many ways, including with technology. In circumstances where 41% of tribunals were used at half their capacity in 2016-17, it is right that we consider whether spending money on the physical estate is the best use of money.

The Government like to say that they have reallocated court services rather than closed them, but Bedford has lost its magistrates court and employment tribunal court, so the public and lay members must travel more than 30 miles to access justice. Can the Minister reassure me that family court services, which are heard in the highly utilised ‎Shire Hall, will remain in Bedford indefinitely?

The hon. Gentleman is right in relation to the changes taking place in Bedford to a certain extent, but I emphasise that the closure of the tribunal court is nothing to do with any changes being made by the Ministry of Justice or Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service. The tribunal service is closing because the landlord did not extend the lease, and it was a decision of listing, which is a judicial capacity, to move the tribunal court’s hearings elsewhere. Civil cases will be heard in Bedford magistrates court, and until another location is found, it will not close.

Northallerton magistrates court in my constituency is scheduled for closure. Will the Minister consider using that court as a pilot for some of the future technology solutions, to ensure that those are workable in practice, before the closure is implemented?

My hon. Friend makes a valid point, as has his neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond (Yorks) (Rishi Sunak). I have met them both and the police and crime commissioner for the area. It is important to consider the appropriateness of pilots for mobile technology, and we will do so.

Thousands of key court staff were axed, but the Government are now spending tens of millions of pounds more on contracting agency staff. More than 100 courts were sold off, each raising not much more than the average house price. Now the Secretary of State has appointed someone with a slash-and-burn record as the new chair of the HMCTS board, telling the press that Tim Parker’s

“expertise will be vital as we deliver our reform and modernisation of the courts”.

To allay concerns that Mr Parker has been appointed for his toughness on cuts, can the Minister outline the specific expertise that Mr Parker has in working in our court system?

The hon. Gentleman makes a number of points that I would like to refute, but I will mainly concentrate on two. It is important that where successful people in business put themselves forward for public service, we should welcome them and not put off experienced people from taking up important posts. Mr Parker has been successful in the businesses that he operated and has operated them appropriately, and we welcome him to his post. The hon. Gentleman also talks about cuts to our system. I would like to make it clear that the Ministry of Justice is proposing an extensive reform programme, which will put £1 billion into our courts service.

Benefit applicants in Kettering tell me that they are now having to wait a completely unacceptable 45 weeks for tribunal appeal hearings due to a lack of a suitable location. Will the Minister look into that as a matter of urgency and get that problem fixed?

It is very important that when cases are started, they are heard expediently, so that people are not prejudiced and do not have to wait for justice. I am happy to meet my hon. Friend to talk about those issues.

Community Sentences

2. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of community sentences on reducing reoffending rates. (904895)

This is something the Department studied in detail in 2015, and we have conclusive evidence that giving somebody a community sentence rather than a short custodial sentence reduces reoffending over a one-year period.

We have evidence of that in Scotland as well. The Scottish Government’s move towards community payback orders has helped Scotland to achieve its current 18-year low in reoffending. Is the Minister looking to the Scottish Government’s example and considering how they have managed to achieve these figures?

Absolutely. We have a lot to learn from Scotland, specifically on community sentences, and indeed we will be looking at what more we can do to emphasise that a custodial sentence in the short term should be a final resort. In reoffending terms, it is often much better for somebody to be given a community sentence.

In Cornwall, I work closely with Konnect Cornwall, headed up by Ian Curnow, which does a lot of work on behalf of the Government and the Department for Work and Pensions to support ex-offenders and people who are on the way into trouble. What more resources can be made available so that no one is left behind?

A lot of this is about identifying those key local providers. The real challenge that we need to overcome, which is true not just for justice but for local councils, is that of making sure that when we work with the third sector we work, not with big national providers, but with small, grassroots local charities.

I draw the House’s attention to the fact that I am a life member of the Magistrates Association. In the all-party parliamentary group on women in the penal system, we recently heard from the Magistrates Association that magistrates are not familiar with the content of community penalties. That makes them reluctant to choose such penalties. The issue, in part, seems to be a lack of funding for training. Will the Minister comment?

This is a long-standing issue—it was true even in 2008-09—that consistently, the judiciary and magistrates have expressed concerns about community sentences. We need to do much more to build confidence, but the fact that this has been going on for nearly 10 years shows that it is a very challenging thing to do. Training will be an important part of that.

Prison Officer Recruitment

Retaining and recruiting engaged and motivated staff is critical to delivering the solutions to drive improvement across the service. Between the end of October 2016 and the end of March 2018, we have increased prison officer numbers by 3,111 full-time equivalent staff. This is already significantly over our target of 2,500 additional staff by the end of December 2018. Investing in the frontline is vital for safety, rehabilitation and security, which is why we are spending £100 million a year in additional prison officers.[Official Report, 1 May 2018, Vol. 640, c. 1MC.]

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer and commend him for the work that he has done on recruitment. Can he confirm when we can expect to see the new officers on the landings?

I can tell my hon. Friend that 90% of the 3,111 will be on the landings by the summer, and all will be in place and operational by the end of the year.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer. Will he update the House on the progress being made towards the new key worker model and the impact it is having on prison officer recruitment?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise that point. The key worker model is crucial. It will allow prison officers to spend more time, both on a one-to-one basis and with small groups of prisoners, improving staff-prisoner relationships. That can help us reduce both violence and reoffending. Some prisons, such as HMP Liverpool, are already running that scheme, and I look forward to more prisons fully implementing that over the months ahead.

Many of Dartmoor prison’s prison officers live in Plymouth and have told me of their concern that prison officer cuts, inexperienced new staff and increasing retirement ages are causing stress and concern. Can the Minister reassure me that there is a proper plan to address staffing and morale in our Prison Service?

There is already a proper plan to address that point about staffing. That is why the numbers are going up, and that is the point I am setting out. The numbers are at a five-year high. We are ahead of what we promised in October 2016. I am pleased that we are doing that and we will continue to recruit new prison officers—net new prison officers—into the Prison Service.

What additional training will these new officers be given to deal with the scourge of the availability of drugs in our prisons throughout the United Kingdom?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. We are refreshing the way that training works for prison officers. It is very important that we deal with the issue of drugs, which has been a real game-changer in its effect on prisons. As we change and refresh our training process, we need to ensure that new prison officers have the skills they need to deal with drugs.

The net increase in the number of prison officers is very welcome, and I particularly welcome the Secretary of State’s reference to a key workers scheme, but does he agree that the mix of the workforce is important? Successful key worker and personal officer schemes will depend on having experienced staff, because they are best able to develop relationships with prisoners and deal with violence, the risk of suicide and other issues. Will a strategy now be put in place for the retention of existing staff, perhaps with incentives to encourage good people to remain in the service?

My hon. Friend is right; it is important that we not only recruit new staff, but retain existing staff. We are working closely with those prisons that are failing to retain staff. It is worth pointing out that in 2017 the percentage of prison officers in bands 3 to 5 who left the service was 9.7%—higher than we would like it, but not particularly out of line with other employers. Prison officers do a very valuable job, and we need to recognise that, support them and encourage those who have a lot to offer to continue to serve.

I am astonished that the Secretary of State can come here and appear somewhat triumphant. Let us be absolutely clear: this Government cut 7,000 prisoner officers, so there are still 4,000 fewer than there were in 2010. When does he expect prison staff numbers to return to 2010 levels?

I suspect that you, Mr Speaker, would stop me if we started a debate on the state of the public finances in 2010 and the difficult decisions that had to be taken as a result of the situation we inherited. The reality is that since October 2016 we have been recruiting more prison officers, we are ahead of what we said we would do and we are continuing to recruit prison officers. That is really important to ensure that prisons operate as they should.

Suicide in Prisons

4. What recent assessment his Department has made of trends in the level of suicide in prisons; and what steps he is taking to reduce that level. (904897)

Any death from suicide in prison is a tragedy. We have managed to reduce the number of suicides in prison—it nearly halved between 2016 and 2017—and most of that progress is due to a new protocol that identifies the individual needs of prisoners and their times of maximum vulnerability.

Nearly 15,600 of our staff have received additional training—that is the figure produced by my colleague. The ACCT—assessment, care in custody and teamwork—process, which is the new protocol for suicide reduction, focuses on the evidence for when prisoners are most vulnerable, for example their first night in custody, and how to ensure that we deal with them. But we still need to reduce the number of suicides further.

Ninety-three women have died in prisons in England and Wales since the 2007 Corston report. When the new female offender strategy is published, will it focus on community alternatives to prison, especially for the 70% of women who are sentenced to six months or less?

Absolutely. This is a common theme. We have clear evidence that reducing the use of custodial short sentences and instead diverting people into the community can be good for protecting the public, by reducing reoffending, but it is also very good for mental health and for reducing suicide.

Victims Law

Supporting victims of crime is a priority for the Government and we have made a commitment to publish a victims strategy by this summer. The strategy will set out our cross-Government approach to make fundamental improvements for victims. It will also consider how compliance with the entitlements in the victims code might be improved and better monitored, and how criminal justice agencies responsible for the delivery of entitlements might be better held to account.

The Minister has promised us a strategy by the summer, but a victims law was offered in the 2015 Conservative manifesto and included in the following Queen’s Speech and reiterated in the 2017 general election. When will this long-promised law finally see the light of day?

We are considering both legislative and non-legislative measures. If any legislation is required to underpin the victims code, we will bring it forward when parliamentary time allows.

With respect to victims of domestic abuse, will the Minister consider women who are not eligible for legal aid to help with their divorce after domestic abuse, including women who currently fail the means test due to their having a share in a valuable family home? Will he meet me to discuss the problems that such women face in paying for basic legal advice?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for the question. Yes, he has a point with regard to the funding of domestic abuse cases from legal aid. My ministerial colleagues are fully aware of this issue, and I am more than happy to meet him.

Mr Speaker,

“Why should victims always have to be fighting their corner? That’s why we need a victims’ law.”

They are not my words, but the words of the Government’s Victims’ Commissioner. Can we be clear: will she and all the other people who are calling for it get a victims law?

My intention in the strategy is to outline the legislative requirements needed to underpin the victims code. By definition, that is a victims law.

Leaving the EU: UK Legal System

7. What steps the Government are taking to ensure that the UK legal system continues to operate effectively after the UK leaves the EU. (904900)

First, I congratulate my hon. Friend on his impressive marathon run at the weekend.

We have agreed an implementation period that will give businesses and individuals legal certainty. We are now concentrating on ensuring that we negotiate the right future for our country, including a deal to ensure that there is mutual enforcement of recognition of judgments in the justice sector.

I thank the Minister for her response. I am very pleased not to have to bob this week, I can tell you, Mr Speaker.

Scotland is proud to have its own ancient and distinct legal system. Brexit will present the most significant challenge to that since the creation of the Scottish Parliament. It is therefore vital that we get it right. Will the Minister reassure me that, at her Department’s heart, it will ensure that Scots law continues to flourish post Brexit, respecting the distinct nature of Scots law and preventing legal confusion and chaos?

My hon. Friend is right to identify that Scotland has a distinct legal system that should be respected. It is important that we engage fully with the devolved Administrations to ensure that we get the best and the right deal throughout the United Kingdom. The Secretary of State will be speaking this afternoon to the Scottish Justice Minister and my officials speak regularly with their counterparts in Scotland to ensure that we will get the best deal for the UK.

Given the uncertainty surrounding Brexit, it is important that the Government do not add to the worries of businesses, especially those that would otherwise be in a position to invest and grow. Will the Secretary of State end the uncertainty in the credit market and release the response to part 2 of the soft tissue injury claims process consultation immediately?

The hon. Lady raises an interesting issue that I am happy to look into. More generally, legal certainty is incredibly important, which is why it is so good that we have agreed the implementation period, which gives us a period of certainty.

Has the Minister made any assessment in the Department of the beneficial changes that can follow from our legislative framework here in the UK, once we are finally unencumbered by the EU?

The hon. Gentleman is right that, after we have left the EU, we will be able to determine our laws, which will benefit our country in the way that we decide.

At the moment, there are two British judges on the European Court of Justice: one from the English legal tradition and one from the Scottish legal tradition. During the transition period, the domestic legal systems of the United Kingdom will continue to be subject to the full force of the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, whether in relation to litigation between private individuals or enforcement against the United Kingdom. Why, then, have the UK Government agreed to article 6 of the draft withdrawal agreement?

The judges at the ECJ make a very valuable contribution to our jurisprudence and to the rights of individual citizens. It is worth pointing out that once someone is appointed as a judge of the ECJ, they are not a representative of their country; they are an individual determining cases that come before them, without any partisanship towards their country. Indeed, if we had a British case before the Court, there would be no saying whether it would come before an English judge or any other judge.

One of the things that means the European Court of Justice is not a foreign court is the presence of British judges on it, but article 6 of the draft withdrawal agreement, which appears to have been agreed, provides that there will be no British judges on the Court of Justice during the transition period. Effectively, they are getting the sack at the end of next March, despite the Court’s continued jurisdiction over the United Kingdom. Does the Minister accept that, as a rule of law issue, it is concerning that there will be no Scottish judge and no English judge on the Court of Justice during the transition period, despite the fact that these countries will continue to be subject to the Court of Justice? Will she persuade the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union to revisit this issue in the negotiations to come, so that there will be British judges on the Court of Justice during the transition period?

As I mentioned, once the judges are appointed, they act independently of their country, so if we respect the judgments and the integrity of the other judges who are there already, we should be satisfied that we will get justice.

Service Animals

8. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the potential merits of creating a specific offence of attacking service animals. (904901)

My hon. Friend, along with my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North East Hertfordshire (Sir Oliver Heald) and the right hon. Member for Delyn (David Hanson), are campaigning strongly and tirelessly on this issue; I was very pleased to meet them on 17 April. I am not aware of any specific conversations that the Secretary of State has had with his Cabinet colleagues, but the Government are sympathetic to the intention behind the Bill, although we believe that the offence is already caught by other legislation.

Police dog Finn from my constituency was stabbed in his stomach with a 10-inch blade. When the offender tried to stab his handler, police dog Finn jumped up and took another stab wound to his head to save the handler. If the handler had not been given a little scratch to his hand, the offender could not have been sent to prison, because the current legislation does not work. The Service Animals (Offences) Bill, which is promoted by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North East Hertfordshire (Sir Oliver Heald), has its Second Reading this Friday. I am grateful to the Minister for the meeting that she had with me, but will she support the Bill on Friday because it can make progress only with Government support?

I am aware of the case and I was very pleased to discuss it. Police dog Finn did a remarkable thing, and I know that he has been recognised for his work. The Government are looking at the issue.

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, the Bill is in the hands of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and it will respond.

May I update my hon. and learned Friend? Some 34 out of the 41 police commissioners in this country support the Service Animals (Offences) Bill, and lawyers up and down the country, including Sarah Dixon, who runs the Finn’s law campaign, have identified a gap in the law. Is it not time that the Government backed my Bill?

I am grateful for a third opportunity to address this issue and to speak again—this is the third time that I have heard my right hon. and learned Friend express his support for the Bill in the Chamber. As I have said, the Government are looking at this issue, and the matter is primarily for DEFRA.

In so far as the right hon. and learned Member for North East Hertfordshire (Sir Oliver Heald) seeks my advice, and he might not do so, my advice to him, to put it bluntly, is to follow Churchill’s adage: KBO—keep buggering on at all times. Just keep going, man!

I congratulate hon. Members on their work in this area. As an animal rights campaigner, I think it is simply wrong that criminal damage is the highest charge that can be brought to punish someone who attacks a service animal. What are the Government doing to change the legal oversight, to protect our brave service animals, and to ensure that those who attack and injure service animals are subject to the full weight of the law?

My hon. Friend raises a technical point about the offences that are available. In fact, there are two: criminal damage; and an offence under animal welfare legislation. Both attract a penalty of up to six months and, as she may be aware, DEFRA has identified that it is looking to increase the sentence to five years.

Prisoner Education/Reoffending Rates

9. What steps he is taking to ensure that prisoners can obtain education and skills while in prison in order to reduce reoffending rates. (904902)

To address education in prison, Dame Sally Coates’s report makes three key recommendations: first, to carry out an individual survey of a prisoner’s educational needs when they enter prison; secondly, to make sure that governors have more control over education provision to reflect the needs of the prison or local area; and, thirdly, to make sure that English and maths are a core part of that curriculum.

A 2017 report said that the quality of education in English and Welsh prisons was generally good, but it found that poor attendance and punctuality of prisoners often went unchallenged and that the process of moving prisoners to learning, skills and work activities from the wings was often ineffective and poorly managed. What is being done to address those problems?

It is absolutely right that there is no point having good educational provision if prisoners are not getting to the classrooms. Fundamentally we need to do two things: first, make sure that prisoners are moved reliably and predictably from their cells into the classrooms; and, secondly, make sure that the educational provision in the classrooms is sufficiently attractive for the prisoners to engage.

I apologise for being late, Mr Speaker, but I was at the unveiling of the first statue of a woman in Parliament Square.

May we have an evaluation of how far we have got? Some years ago, when I was Chair of the Education Committee, we looked at skills training in prisons, but I do not think that much has happened since then, particularly for people on the special educational needs spectrum, and especially those with autism.

There has been a significant improvement in the Ofsted reports, but the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that people with special educational needs, in particular, and the more than 50% of prisoners who have previously been excluded from school or have literacy challenges remain a big issue for education in prisons.

Does the Minister agree that one of the keys to reducing reoffending rates is ensuring that skilled probation officers have manageable case loads so that they can give enough time and energy to each individual in their care?

Absolutely. It is particularly important that there can be flexibility so that there can be a higher ratio of probation officers to high-risk cases than for low-risk cases.

It is right, of course, that prisoners must turn up, but when I visited Deerbolt prison in my constituency, the governor said that the contractor, Novus, was extremely unreliable. What is the Minister doing to respond to the report by ensuring that as contracts are rolled over, control of them is decentralised to the prison?

This is a central issue about which governors get very frustrated. Over the next 12 months, the hon. Lady will discover that we are putting governors in charge of that provision so that they can put pressure on the provider within the prison and ensure that it meets their needs.

Prisoners: Mental Health

We are committed to improving the provision of and access to mental health services for those in the justice system. We continue to roll out the keyworker role across the closed male estate so that all prisoners will have a named officer to provide them with dedicated support during their sentence. As the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), said earlier, 14,600 prison staff have now completed at least one module of this training.

Figures show that, in March 2017, 75% of prisoners in England and Wales with serious mental health problems experienced significant delays in their transfer to hospital for treatment. Last month, an independent review of mental health assessment reported delays to transfer, with one of the reasons being the delay by the Ministry of Justice in sanctioning transfers. Given the pressure on those suffering poor mental health, surely this is important enough to require swifter action. What steps is the Minister taking to address the problem?

I became responsible last September for the unit in the Ministry of Justice that authorises the transfer of patients from the criminal justice system into secure accommodation. We have had some internal difficulties, which I inherited, with the staffing of the unit, but things are improving. I get a weekly update on the number of people in the system who need to be transferred. I am under no illusions about the need to expedite those transfers, and I am in weekly contact with the Department of Health and Social Care about the need to assess the capacity at low, medium and high-security levels in the secure accommodation network.

Probation Services: Reoffending Rates

11. What assessment he has made of reoffending rates since the part-privatisation of probation services. (904904)

While the frequency of reoffending—in other words, the number of offences committed by prolific offenders—has risen since 2009, the base rate, or the number of people reoffending, has dropped by two percentage points since the introduction of community rehabilitation contracts.

In 2015, the Government commissioned two important reviews: the Dame Sally Coates review of education in prisons, which was mentioned earlier; and the Charlie Taylor review of the youth justice system. Both reviews highlighted basic failures in the current system and made important recommendations. Will the Minister tell me how many of those recommendations have been implemented?

My focus has been on the Dame Sally Coates review; youth justice is dealt with by the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Dr Lee). The Dame Sally Coates review is driving the entire education transformation over the next 12 months, particularly in respect of the three indicators that I mentioned earlier, including the assessment of prisoners and coming up with a plan. I shall have to reply in writing to the hon. Lady’s question about exactly how many recommendations have been implemented.

The joint report of the inspectorates of probation and of prisons stated that if the key functions of community rehabilitation companies

“were removed tomorrow…the impact…would be negligible.”

So what exactly are we paying for?

I must respectfully disagree with that. As I have said, the base rate of reoffending has dropped by two percentage points, which is actually quite significant, as the rate was flat for nearly 40 years before that. It would be very dangerous indeed to remove the community rehabilitation companies, which are looking after 40,000 people who were previously under very short periods of supervision, and nearly 100,000 extra people who would be dangerous to the community if not properly monitored.


I share the outrage at the distress that this intrusive behaviour can cause to victims, and I am determined to ensure that they can be confident that their complaints will be taken seriously. I am sympathetic to calls for a change in the law, and my officials are reviewing the current law to make sure that it is fit for purpose. As part of that work, we are considering the private Member’s Bill that is being promoted by the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse).

It is appropriate on this day to refer yet again to the statue of Millicent Fawcett, and I shall channel my inner Millicent Fawcett by asking the Secretary of State this question. Nearly 100,000 members of the public have signed a petition calling for upskirting to be made a specific sexual offence, and MPs from all the major parties have signed an early-day motion that makes the same call, so why is the Secretary of State still refusing to act? We really need to ensure that our law reflects that of Scotland, where provisions on upskirting have been incorporated in the Sexual Offences (Scotland) Act 2009.

Let me also acknowledge the unveiling of the Millicent Fawcett statue.

As I have said, I am sympathetic to the idea of our taking action in this regard. There are instances in which people have been successfully prosecuted for upskirting in the context of outraging public decency, and voyeurism can also apply under the Sexual Offences Act 2003. However, those offences do not necessarily cover every instance of upskirting, which is why there is a strong case for looking at the law and considering whether we need to change it.

I, too, am using my inner Millicent Fawcett courage to raise this issue. In Scotland, the offences of upskirting and downblousing are covered by the 2009 Act. Surely the Secretary of State accepts that the same could be done in this country.

We are looking very closely at the Scottish legislation and experience. It is true that a very small number of prosecutions have been brought under that legislation. I want to reassure people that successful prosecutions have been brought in England under the existing law, but I think that there is a case for making sure that we have legislation that deals with this offence specifically.

I think that we all receive correspondence about this regularly. As other Members have done, may I encourage the Secretary of State to look at what has been done in Scotland, where we have shown leadership? The House is clear about the need for action—the will is there, so we must act.

We are looking very closely at how the Scottish legislation has operated to establish whether, if there is a gap, that represents a way in which we can address the matter.

Prison Capacity: South-west

In Devon and Cornwall, as in my own constituency in Cumbria, the number of offenders is fortunately quite small in absolute terms, which means that provision is at Exeter and Dartmoor.

The Minister will know that Dartmoor Prison is earmarked for closure, after notice was served on its lease back in 2013. The prison is an asset to the south-west and employs a number of my constituents. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr Cox) is also keen and eager for the prison to remain open. Will the Minister review the decision and look at what more can be done to keep that facility open?

The decision to close the prison was based on the fact that it was built in 1805 and there are significant maintenance issues, with a great deal of damp and leaking. However, we pay tribute to the governor and the prison officers for running a very good prison regime that is popular with the prisoners, which is one thing that we will have to balance when making the final decision on the prison.

Courts: Physical Access

14. What discussions he has had with HM Courts & Tribunals Service on improving physical access to courts and tribunals for people with disabilities. (904907)

I regularly meet HMCTS to discuss the court estate. It regularly reviews the estate and has monitoring systems in place to ensure that there is appropriate physical access for disabled people and, when appropriate, to identify gaps and make improvements.

If there is monitoring, the Minister will be aware that the North Staffordshire combined justice centre, which is where my constituents from Stoke-on-Trent are sent for personal independence payment appeals, has small steps and insufficient parking, and on one occasion a gentleman was asked to remove a piece of life-saving equipment so that it could be scanned by security before he entered the building. Is the Minister willing to meet Pam Bryan and John Beech from the Stoke-on-Trent and Newcastle disability network so that we can look at how the site can be made fit for purpose?

The hon. Gentleman is right: I am aware of that. The charity he mentions—the Stoke-on-Trent Area Network for Disability—made a complaint, and HMCTS had a meeting on 5 April to discuss the issue. It is looking at the feasibility of implementing the suggestions that were made, such as putting in place automatic doors, signage and improvements to the waiting area, but I would be very happy to meet the hon. Gentleman and his constituents to discuss them.

Access to courts for people with disabilities will not be improved by closing courts. It turns out from the response to a written question I recently tabled that this year no Minister has visited any of the courts that are due for closure. May I implore the Minister to come to Cambridge and talk to people with disabilities to see the impact that the Government’s plans will have?

I am always happy to meet people who use the courts service around the country. We are improving access in a number of ways, including by ensuring not only that we have court buildings, but that disabled people can take advantage of the ability to give evidence by video link so that they do not have to go to a court at all.

Family Justice System

I was pleased to meet my hon. Friend in March to discuss issues related to the family justice system, which he cares deeply about. It is important that every child has a stable home, and we need to look across the justice system to ensure that it delivers the right outcomes for vulnerable children and their families.

I was grateful for the meeting with the Minister. Does she agree with Baroness Shackleton that fault-based divorce produces uncertainty that creates an industry for lawyers and a jungle for the layman? Is it not high time for an overhaul of the whole family law system to address that and many other issues to do with couples’ rights before, after and without marriage?

My hon. Friend makes a powerful point about no-fault divorces, as he has previously. When there is conflict within a family, it is important to reduce that conflict in the interests of not only the parents but the children. I can confirm that we are looking actively at the issue.

Our family courts are in crisis. The Ministry of Justice’s own figures show that since the removal of legal aid from the family courts, two thirds of litigants represent themselves and have no access to lawyers. They have to deal with the incredibly complex issues that arise in the family courts. Will the Minister confirm whether, as part of the review of the family justice system, the Lord Chancellor will re-establish early legal aid in such cases, which we have promised?

The hon. Lady makes an important point. Family justice is important, because issues for children start by having a stable home and a strong family. She will know that, as part of the LASPO reviews, we will be looking at the issues she raises. I should also say that we have an online pilot at the moment relating to divorce, and it has been incredibly successful. It used to be the case that 40% of paper applications for a divorce were sent back owing to incorrect filings. That number is now down to 0.8%.

Domestic Abuse

16. What steps he is taking with Cabinet colleagues to provide a more efficient and accountable criminal justice system for victims of domestic abuse. (904909)

Since 2010, the Government have made tackling domestic abuse an absolute priority. Last month, the Prime Minister launched the violence against women and girls strategy at No. 10, and following on from that I attended the first roadshow event, at Edgbaston cricket ground in Birmingham, to meet victims of domestic abuse and campaigners.[Official Report, 11 May 2018, Vol. 640, c. 12MC.]

Safer Places is a remarkable and extraordinary domestic violence charity in my constituency. It has highlighted the problem of the delay between domestic violence incidents being reported and finally getting to court. What are the Government doing to reduce the time between the incidents being reported and getting to court, so that the perpetrators of this evil abuse can be brought to trial more quickly?

The police response to domestic abuse has improved in recent years, and action has been taken to address the inspector of constabulary’s recommendation that domestic abuse should be a force-wide priority. The police are referring over 19,000 more cases to the Crown Prosecution Service than they were in 2010. In the courts, the listing of cases is a judicial function, and they have a responsibility to ensure that all cases are heard by an appropriate judge with the minimum of delay.

Birmingham Pub Bombings: Legal Aid

17. What recent representations he has received on legal aid for families of the victims of the 1974 Birmingham pub bombings. (904910)

We have had a number of representations about this issue, many from the hon. Gentleman himself. I took part in the Westminster Hall debate on the subject, and I was pleased to have the opportunity to hear from him and many other Members. The Secretary of State also met the family of a victim recently. I understand that the recent decisions of the Legal Aid Agency are frustrating for the families, but the hon. Gentleman knows that I am unable to intervene in individual cases.

As public funding has been made available to the coroner to appeal the judgment of the High Court on the naming of suspects in relation to the Birmingham pub bombings inquests, should not parity of representation be made available to the families of the victims of those bombings, to defend that same High Court judgment? If legal aid is not available to the families, why does the Minister not make funding directly available, following the example of the Hillsborough inquests?

The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point. This is a tragedy for all those concerned. He knows that the families have legal aid in relation to the inquest. Legislation on legal aid for judicial review and for inquests is different.

Prison Plans: Port Talbot

I should like to pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for his amazingly assiduous campaign. He asked exactly the same question, with exactly the same words, at the last Justice questions, since when I have met him another half dozen times. We have had a good meeting with his constituents, and I am now aware of their individual and general concerns. However, we need prison places in Wales.

The hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) is further evidence of the KBO principle. The Minister said what he said non-pejoratively, but I simply make the innocent and prosaic, but valid, point that repetition is not a novel phenomenon in the House of Commons.

Repetition can be a form of flattery, Mr Speaker. I should like to thank the Minister for meeting me and the representatives of the NPT Prison Group for a constructive discussion, and for agreeing to put plans for the Baglan prison on hold. I am sure he will also have noted the decision of the Welsh Government to put all plans on hold pending a strategic review. Can he assure me that all plans for the Baglan prison are well and truly on hold, and that the UK Government will engage in a constructive and positive manner with the Welsh Government in the strategic review?

I hope the hon. Gentleman feels that we are engaged in a constructive and positive manner and that we have very much taken on board the concerns around that site, but it is important to bear in mind that more than 1,500 prisoners with Welsh addresses are currently being held in English prisons. We need to think about how to provide accommodation for them in Wales, because that is important for reducing reoffending, resettling them in their communities and keeping the links with their families.

Given the overwhelming evidence that smaller local prisons, where family links and the Welsh language can be maintained, are far more effective at reducing reoffending, why is the Secretary of State still proposing super prisons in south Wales when they are known not to work?

There are of course reasons why larger modern prisons are favoured, and that is partly about how we can manage things at scale. However, if there are communities in Wales that would like to come forward with proposals for smaller local prisons, I would absolutely agree that there is a strong argument for keeping prisoners closer to their homes.

Prisons: Drug Smuggling

We have invested in improving security through the use of body searches and metal-detecting technology in every prison. We are also trialling new X-ray body scanners to reveal more hidden items. We have invested £3 million to establish national and regional intelligence units in Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service which, with prisons, probation and law enforcement partners, are building intelligence about the highest-risk offenders.

I thank the Secretary of State for his answer. My local newspaper, Clacton Gazette, recently ran a story about the use of drones to deliver drugs into prisons. Short of shooting the damn things down, what is the Department going to do about that?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question and his suggestion. We are taking decisive steps to tackle drones bringing contraband into prisons. Under Operation Trenton, Prison Service and police investigators intercept drones and track down the criminals behind them. There have been at least 32 convictions to date, with those sentenced serving in total more than 100 years in prison.

Topical Questions

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.