Skip to main content

Topical Questions

Volume 644: debated on Tuesday 10 July 2018

Today, I have announced an additional £30 million investment in our prison estate, including £16 million to improve facilities at 11 of our most pressed prisons. Some £6 million will enhance security and tackle those co-ordinating drug dealing from inside through scanners, better searching and phone-blocking technology. Since February, 12 such serious criminals have been targeted for disruption, with nine already having been transferred to other parts of the estate, including more secure prisons.

The Government are conducting a review of the impact of the swingeing cuts to legal aid since 2012, but they have so far refused to say whether more funding will be made available for legal aid. Will the Secretary of State confirm that additional funding will be made available if it is found to be required, or is the review simply an exercise in moving legal aid funding from one cause to another?

The purpose of the review is to assess what we need to do. That is the correct way to go about it. Obviously, we will need to engage with the Treasury in terms of future spending reviews, but we have a serious piece of work, with very substantial engagement with stakeholders, on which to make an assessment of how the legal aid system is working.

T4. Will the Minister give an update on how restorative justice programmes are being rolled out and how they are being used for public good and environmental measures? (906375)

My hon. Friend is right to highlight the important role of restorative justice. The Ministry of Justice supports the provision of victim-focused restorative justice as one of a range of measures to help victims to cope with and recover from crime. A recent evaluation showed that 85% of victims who participated in restorative justice said they were satisfied with the experience, which can, of course, bring benefits to the community as well.

In my first two questions today, I focused on the widespread failings of privatisation in our justice system. I have written to the Secretary of State about the close relationship that his Department has with outsourcing giant Serco, a relationship that is ever closer given that his new Minister was once its spin doctor-in-chief. Will the Secretary of State confirm to the House today that he has reorganised responsibilities in his Department, so that his new Minister in charge of youth justice will not be involved in any way in any of the young offender institutions that Serco manages?

There has been no reorganisation of responsibilities. There is no conflict of interest here at all. The suggestion that because somebody has worked in the private sector for such a company, there is a conflict of interest is not accurate. The hon. Gentleman’s hostility to the private sector, in this sector and across the piece, is symptomatic of why the Labour party should be kept as far away from the Government Benches as possible.

T6. Although the Guardianship (Missing Persons) Act 2017 has received Royal Assent, families of missing people are still unable to make applications to become guardians of their loved ones’ affairs. Will they be able to do so before the end of this calendar year? (906377)

My hon. Friend is right to highlight this important issue, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) for successfully piloting the 2017 Act on to the statute book. Department officials are currently drafting rules of court regulations and a code of practice, so that those drafts can be finalised and consulted on. I am keen that we make as rapid progress as possible.

T2. An increasing number of cases have been reported in the press where victims of serious crime, including a man who was deliberately infected with HIV, are not getting the compensation they are entitled to because of minor unspent convictions. Will the Minister commit today to reviewing the rules governing the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority to ensure that victims are not denied compensation for having minor unspent convictions? (906373)

The hon. Lady highlights an important issue. As she will be aware, the rules that govern how the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority operates are set by this House, but it operates entirely independently of Ministers in its awards and in its application of those rules. She highlights an important issue, which I know the Secretary of State will have heard very clearly.

T9. Do Ministers agree that the Sentencing Council has shown great leadership in acting swiftly to address the growing threat of fentanyl and other synthetic opioid drugs by issuing guidance last month? Will the Minister continue to work with me to raise awareness of this deadly drug? (906380)

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his campaigning on this issue. As right hon. and hon. Members are aware, fentanyl is an incredibly dangerous drug, because even in minuscule quantities, it can do more damage than heroin and cocaine. We have had nearly 240 deaths in Britain and the United States has had up to 20,000 deaths in a year from fentanyl, so the recent actions from the Sentencing Council and the Crown Prosecution Service to clarify how noxious this substance is are welcomed, and I repeat my tribute to the hon. Gentleman for raising this issue.

T3. While I understand why the Government are spending £7 million on installing in-cell telephones in prisons as part of a drive to improve rehabilitation, will the Government also look at whether there should perhaps be additional funding for the healthcare system within the court system? Ministers will be aware that Tony Fitzsimons, the chair of the Lay Observers National Council, has highlighted concerns that people are not getting the care that they need in courts. I am happy to write to the Minister about this issue. (906374)

I would be very grateful if the right hon. Gentleman could write to us. We are in the middle of a £1 billion court programme, which includes a number of things, such as technology and improving other services such as family rooms, where people can spend time with their families. We are looking at a number of things that I am very happy to talk to him about.

Following the Chequers statement, will my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor lay before the House details of what active provisions his Department is making for a deal not being secured with the European Union?

At the Ministry of Justice, we are very much working to ensure that we get the best, and the right, deal for our country, but like all competent Departments, we are also working to ensure that if there is no deal, we are ready for it. We have £17.3 million extra from the Treasury to look into this and ensure that we have the right Brexit scenario.

T5. Research by the Howard League shows that Her Majesty’s Prison Lincoln’s population is currently 138% more than its certified normal accommodation capacity. I hear about this at first hand because a close relative of mine is a senior prison officer. What measures does the Minister have in place to address prison overcrowding and the dangerous conditions that it creates both for prisoners and staff? (906376)

First, my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor announced this morning an additional £16 million to invest in decency—that is, bringing cells back into operation that have been taken out and making sure that the basic fabric is repaired. However, the most important thing is the building of 10,000 new prison places, beginning with Wellingborough and Glen Parva and moving on, to provide exactly the decent conditions that the hon. Lady raises in her question.

On Friday, we had an important debate in this House about telephony in prisons. On the back of that debate, will the Minister set out what more we are doing to tackle drugs in prisons?

Tackling drugs in prisons involves dealing with how the drugs get into the prison—either over the wall or on a person—the demand in the prison and the way that we search people within the walls. All these things need to be done simultaneously—supply, demand and searching—and the key to this is training, training, training.

T7. Following the question from the hon. Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy), campaigners supporting missing people and their families are concerned, despite assurances that a timetable for implementation of the Guardianship (Missing Persons) Act 2017 would be set out before the summer. Will the Minister give the families the assurance of a specific timetable for the implementation of this vital Act and clarify when the rules of court will be published? (906378)

I entirely understand the concern of the hon. Lady, many hon. Members and many members of the public about this issue and their determination to see this delivered. I share that determination, but it is important that, while we work at pace, we ensure that the rules of court are correct. I am determined to make sure that we do everything we can to speed it up.

What analysis has the Ministry of Justice done on how well the public sector is doing in taking on ex-offenders in employment? Does the Minister agree that we cannot just exhort the private sector to step up to the plate in this area if the public sector is not leading by example?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight this point. Indeed, many parts of the public sector are stepping up and doing that—the Prison Service itself takes people on. We have a pilot programme in north-west England that is focused on this. My hon. Friend is tireless in campaigning for employers to take on ex-offenders, and I commend him on his activity.

T8. Family drug and alcohol courts have widespread support among lawyers, judges and policy makers, and they deliver far better outcomes for children and families than other options do. Despite that, the service faces closure because of funding cuts. Can the Secretary of State guarantee funding today to safeguard this vital service? (906379)

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that the family drug and alcohol courts do great work. The fact that the Tavistock and Portman Trust is not going forward with the programme will not affect any of the existing courts. It is disappointing that the trust has chosen not to continue with the programme, and we will continue to look at the provision of this important service.

On behalf of the Government, I stood at the Dispatch Box beside the Treasury Bench and promised the country that we would have a victims law. May I ask the Minister where that victims law is?

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that question, and I know that the House is grateful to him for his work and his tireless campaigning in this area. We have made it clear that we are committed to bringing forward a victim strategy this summer, which will look at both legislative and non-legislative options for delivering what he mentions. I would be delighted to meet him to discuss it further.

T10. In the light of the tragic hit-and-run accident in Coventry some time ago, in which two children were killed and a family devastated, are there any plans to review the law and sentencing in that area? (906381)

Absolutely. We remain very committed to this. We have undertaken extensive consultation on extending the maximum sentences for causing death by dangerous driving, and we are looking at those for causing death by careless driving. We intend to introduce legislation as soon as parliamentary time allows.

In the light of the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham), when is the Secretary of State going to reply to my letter asking when longer sentences for causing death by dangerous driving will be introduced into legislation, as was promised in October last year?

I refer to my previous answer. This is a priority for the Government, but we need to find the right legislative instrument for doing it. Be in no doubt—it will happen.

Pursuant to the Minister’s response about the issue, raising the small claims limit for employers’ liability will affect about 40% of claimants, many of whose employers claim that those individuals contributed to their own accidents through negligence. How are they supposed to stand up, unrepresented, to their employer and their insurance company?

The entire purpose of the small claims court is to make sure that minor injuries—in this case, the claims limit was set in 1991 at less than £1,000 and will rise to £2,000—are dealt with without lawyers. The same thing happens in most of our European partner countries. Norway is a very good example of a model in which exactly such cases are taken through without lawyers, up to a much higher value than would be the case here.

The Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. and learned Member for South East Cambridgeshire (Lucy Frazer), wants to close the magistrates court in Cambridge. What assessment has she made of suggested ways to keep a magistrates court in Cambridge, and when will she make a decision?

The decision about the magistrates court in Cambridge will be for me to make. I want to look at all the evidence and the representations that have been made, and I will make a decision in due course.

According to the Public and Commercial Services Union, there are almost 1,200 staff at the Ministry of Justice on poverty pay. Will the Minister support the union’s 5% pay claim for all public sector workers?

I have already set out the figures in relation to pay, and I think the hon. Lady will find that they are not at 5%.

Jerome Rogers from New Addington in Croydon committed suicide when he was 20 years old, after being hounded by bailiffs who broke regulation after regulation in their horrific handling of his initial—very small—traffic fines. Jerome’s family will be in Parliament next week for a meeting of the all-party group on debt and personal finance, and there is a programme about his life, “Killed By My Debt”, on BBC 1 next week. Will the Minister please meet Jerome’s family?

The hon. Lady makes an important point, and she will be aware that we are looking at the question of the small number of bailiffs who are not acting appropriately. I would be very happy to meet her and the family.

Will the Secretary of State do something about the way in which we treat miscarriages of justice in this country, and will he meet the all-party parliamentary group on miscarriages of justice to discuss it?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the case that was before the Supreme Court recently. We shall see where that leads, but I am sure that a member of the ministerial team would be delighted to meet the all-party parliamentary group.