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Topical Questions

Volume 649: debated on Tuesday 13 November 2018

I am pleased to inform Parliament that, as the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar), announced on Friday, we have awarded £3.3 million to 12 organisations to help to divert vulnerable women from crime and reduce reoffending. We know that a large number of female offenders are in extremely vulnerable positions. Many face issues with substance misuse and mental health problems, often as a result of repeated abuse and trauma. This is the first wave of funding from the £5 million investment in community provision announced in the female offender strategy, which sets out a range of measures aimed at shifting focus away from custody towards rehabilitative community services.

My constituent Alison suffers economic domestic abuse from an ex-partner, but because of this Government’s cuts to legal aid she cannot afford legal representation to get the fresh start she needs. Will the Secretary of State meet me to discuss Alison’s situation and explain how she can navigate an underfunded legal system that limits access to justice?

The hon. Lady will be aware that we are currently looking at access to justice as part of our post-implementation review. In terms of the particular case she mentions, I know that the courts Minister will be happy to meet her.

T2. What is the Ministry of Justice doing to ensure that female prisoners can never again be assaulted on the female estate by male prisoners who claim to be transgender? (907527)

My hon. Friend raises a very important issue. It is important that all prisoners are treated with respect, but it is also vital that the safety of all prisoners is prioritised. Detailed procedures are in place in Prison Service instruction 17/2016 to do that in respect of transgender prisoners. The offences at New Hall are very serious and we are looking at how those rules were applied in that case. In the light of that, I can confirm that I continue to look carefully at the content and application of PSI 17/2016.

I do not know whether the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies) knows this yet, but I do know that he will shortly introduce an Adjournment debate on this matter. His views, and the views of others—which, in many cases, are different—will therefore be heard at rather greater length before very long.

The Prime Minister told her party conference that austerity was over, and the Chancellor said that austerity was finally coming to an end, but it seems that they did not have the Ministry of Justice in mind. The Treasury’s own figures—I have them here—show that justice budgets will be slashed by £300 million next year, and that is on top of hundreds of millions of pounds of cuts this year. Those cuts risk pushing justice from repeated crises to breaking point. Will the Secretary of State confirm that, as the Treasury says, justice budgts will indeed be cut by £300 million next year, and that these brutal cuts show that we cannot rely on the Conservatives to end austerity, injustice or anything else?

In the recent Budget, the Chancellor announced an extra £52 million for the MOJ to be spent in the course of this year. The figures to which the hon. Gentleman has referred are in the 2015 spending review. At the time of the 2017 general election, when the Labour party proposed spending that would increase Government debt by a trillion pounds, there was nothing there for the MOJ. Let us remember that next time the hon. Gentleman stands up and rants about spending on the MOJ.

A firework factory explosion in my constituency killed two members of the public and there was a criminal conviction as a result. The widow of one of those people applied to the criminal injuries compensation scheme, but was refused. Will my hon. Friend look at the scope of the scheme to ensure that such injuries are included in future?

I was very sorry to hear about the circumstances that my hon. Friend has outlined. As he will know, we have announced a review of the scope, affordability, sustainability and rules of the criminal injuries compensation scheme, but I shall of course be happy to meet him to discuss the specifics of that case if he wishes.

T3. The criminal justice system is on its knees. The police and the Crown Prosecution Service are failing to make important disclosures in criminal proceedings because they do not have the necessary staff. Defendants are representing themselves, often in complex cases, because they have failed to qualify for legal aid. Interpreters are not turning up because the system is broken. Solicitors and barristers are leaving the professions and are not being replaced. The failed probation privatisation project has caused chaos and is putting people at risk. Family proceedings are just as chaotic. When will the Government do something about our once proud justice system? When will they get a grip and end austerity in the system? (907528)

The MOJ is investing a significant amount in our justice system—£1 billion on reform. The hon. Gentleman makes a number statements. We are currently reviewing legal aid. As I mentioned earlier, we invested £9 million in criminal advocates’ fees in April, and we are in the middle of a consultation and have proposed a further investment of £15 million. We take our responsibility in relation to justice very seriously and are working hard to ensure that we deliver justice in this country.

I will call a colleague who promises to ask a short, one-sentence question. If it is a long question, do not bother. Kemi Badenoch.

As the Secretary of State has pointed out, £58 million more has come in the Budget. In individual prisons, we have now invested more than £16 million, which has been spent particularly on replacing windows and refurbishing cells. In Wormwood Scrubs, for example, as I have seen, the whole of the fourth landing on Delta wing has been refurbished. That is good progress, but there is more to do.

T4. A knife crime epidemic is facing this country, so can the Government explain why four in 10 criminals who are caught in possession of a knife for a second time are not jailed, as the law requires? (907529)

Since the introduction of the minimum custodial term in 2015, people who are caught for repeat possession of a knife are now more likely to go to prison. Recent statistics show that 83% of offenders received a custodial sentence, which is an increase from 68% in the year ending June 2015. It is also worth pointing out that average custodial lengths are also going up—from 7.1 months in the year ending June 2017, to 7.9 months in the year ending June 2018.

When a prisoner commits a serious violent offence in prison, will Ministers take action to ensure that prosecutions for such offences result in additions to the prisoner’s sentence, not concurrent sentences?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. Of course, the House recently passed legislation to increase sentences for violent crimes committed against prison officers and other emergency workers. It is right that we do so, and these matters need to be taken very seriously. It is important that the police, the Crown Prosecution Service and prison authorities work closely to ensure that we do not allow this activity to continue.

T5. The North Wales police and crime commissioner has made it clear that the growing prison population at HMP Berwyn is putting increased demand on policing. The cost of that is wholly borne by the people of north Wales through the police precept. Can the Minister explain why his Department does not provide additional policing resources but instead expects North Wales police to find this from already desperately constrained budgets? (907530)

It is the responsibility of the police primarily to work on supporting the Prison Service. Our responsibility at the Ministry of Justice extends to what happens within the prison walls. It is true, of course, that with prisons—regardless of whether they are in north Wales or London—there is additional work, particularly on prosecution, but we do not feel that the imposition of Berwyn leads to the kind of financial pressures that would require a rethinking of the entire settlement.

I welcome the Lord Chancellor’s confirmation that the female offender strategy signals a shift from custody to rehabilitation. I am also grateful, as it will be, for the award to the Nelson Trust. Would the Minister like to come and see the astonishing work of the Nelson Trust in Gloucester to help former female offenders?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his persistence on this topic, and I am pleased to say that I understand that the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar), will be visiting the Nelson Trust very shortly.

T6. Today’s Financial Times cites Bristol Citizens Advice as saying that many more people are now getting into problem debt because of household bills rather than, for example, overspending on their credit cards. Will the Minister urge councils to follow the example of Bristol City Council which, led by Councillors Craig Cheney and Paul Goggin, is introducing an ethical collection policy, rather than deploying bailiffs to collect what are sometimes very small debts from people who have got into debt through no fault of their own? We have already heard today about some of the problems involving intimidation by rogue bailiffs. (907531)

I am very happy to look at what is happening in Bristol. Clearly it is right that debt collection measures are proportionate, and the hon. Lady raises an important point about that. One of the best ways to ensure that living standards increase and debt levels do not rise is by making sure that we get more people into work, and we are succeeding in that.

In order to discourage reoffending it is essential that ex-offenders have settled accommodation when they leave prison. What action is my right hon. Friend taking so that prison governors ensure that there is settled accommodation, as is required under the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his work on the Homelessness Reduction Act. It is right that local authorities and prison governors work closely together to make sure that we provide that accommodation. There are three factors that help to bring down reoffending: ensuring that an offender gets a job, has accommodation—a roof over their head—and maintains family ties. If we can pursue all those, we will help to bring down reoffending.

T7. In the light of yet another stabbing at the weekend in Skelmersdale, and having heard the Secretary of State’s response to my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner), will the right hon. Gentleman indicate whether he is satisfied that the penalties for knife crime and for those convicted of illegally carrying a knife are adequate and effective, especially as a deterrent? (907532)

As I have already set out, we are seeing more people going to prison and custodial sentences are increasing for these offences following the change in the law. On the question of deterrence, this is in part about sentencing, and these are clearly serious offences, but there are other factors when it comes to the deterrent effect; it is not just about sentences. We have to bear that in mind as well.

How do we have a “fair and more progressive” way to pay probate fees, as the Minister put it, when the fees for an estate worth £499,999 have risen from £215 to £750, and those for an estate worth £500,000—just £1 more —will rise to £2,500 for not a jot more work on behalf of the Government? How is that fair?

My hon. Friend, as a former Justice Minister, will know that charging fees is an essential part of funding an effective and modern Courts and Tribunals Service and of ensuring justice. We listened carefully to the concerns that were raised in relation to our previous proposal, and we have significantly reduced the levels. This system will lift 25,000 estates out of paying probate fees at all.

T8. Within the last week, two separate Hindu temples, the Shree Swaminarayan temple in Willesden and the Shree Kutch Satsang Swaminarayan temple in Kenton, have been broken into and religious icons have been stolen. Can the Minister confirm that these will be treated as hate crimes and not just ignored by the police, given that they targeted people of one faith? (907533)

Those specific cases will be a matter for the police and for the Crown Prosecution Service, but if activity of this sort is targeted on the basis of religious belief, that is completely unacceptable and I am sure that the whole House is united in condemning it.

I think the Chair of the Select Committee should have a second bite of the cherry. I call Mr Bob Neill.

I am very grateful, Mr Speaker. The Secretary of State has a particular responsibility to protect the interests of the judiciary. Recruitment to senior judicial office is a continuing problem, and there is a regular shortfall. He has indicated that he intends to consider seriously the recommendations of the Senior Salaries Review Body. When can we expect a response to this, given that a number of important posts are due to fall vacant?

My hon. Friend is right to highlight the shortage, particularly at the High Court, and it is right that we should look seriously at the proposals of the Senior Salaries Review Body. I am not going to put a date on when we will have completed that process, but it is important that when we do so, we get judicial recruitment on to a sustainable basis.

T9. Will sentencing women to the proposed new residential women’s centres rather than to prison custody require a change to the sentencing framework and/or new legislation? If so, will the Minister commit to consulting widely with the sector before bringing forward the reforms? (907534)

The proposals in the female offenders strategy, which I look forward to working across the House in implementing, are clear in that they are giving the judiciary alternative routes to custody. We are working on the implementation of those proposals now, and I would be happy to meet the hon. Lady to talk about her specific views on this, if she wishes to do so.

Amazon and eBay are selling tiny mobile phones that are explicitly marketed for their ability to be smuggled into prisons. Does the Minister agree that they are abetting criminality and that they must stop doing this?

These beat-the-boss phones are designed explicitly to be concealed. We must crack down on the people who are selling them but, more than that, we have to get processes right in prison. This includes investing in more sniffer dogs to pick up the phones and in better scanners, and the staff having the morale, the confidence and the training to challenge prisoners, inspect cells and stop this stuff being smuggled in.

T10. There were many hundreds of responses to the Ministry’s proposals to close Cambridge magistrates court, but there has still not been a proper response to the consultation. Will the Secretary of State tell me when that will happen? (907535)

Given that we have 10,000 foreign national offenders in our prisons, with which new countries are we seeking to sign compulsory prisoner transfer agreements?

We always seek to find new opportunities to improve the system, and we will continue to do so.

What conclusions did the Minister draw from any recent discussions with police and crime commissioners about their future role in our probation service?

Police and crime commissioners play a central role in the system, so we are consulting and redesigning it to make that role more influential. It will not be possible to devolve fully to the PCCs, but we will design the system so that the National Probation Service chief in each region works closely with the PCC to ensure that their views determine how the system is run.

Order. I was awaiting advice on an important matter, so it was advantageous to have a slightly protracted exchange, but that should not be taken as a precedent for future sessions. Other Members who are standing have already asked a question, but the right hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) has not, so we will have one more question.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. Does the Secretary of State recognise that it is intolerable that employment and support allowance claimants at the Norwich tribunal are waiting 40 weeks—nine months—for their appeal hearing, and that personal independence payment claimants are waiting six months, particularly when 71% of those appeals are successful? What is he doing to change that?

We work with the Department for Work and Pensions on such matters. If I recall correctly, there has been, over a period, progress in bringing down some of the lengths of time, but I will happily look into the matter and write to the right hon. Gentleman.