The Secretary of State was asked—
Legal Advice: Workplace Injuries
I believe that the hon. Gentleman is referring to our proposal to raise the small claims limit for employees’ personal injury claims to £2,000. That change is not only in line with inflation, but will give those affected the opportunity to be heard in an uncomplicated, accessible court, without the need for a lawyer if they so choose.
I thank the Minister for that answer. Could she inform the House why the Government are avoiding full parliamentary scrutiny by putting the most damaging part of the Civil Liability Bill, which raises the small claims limit, in a statutory instrument, rather than on the face of the Bill, where it could be properly scrutinised by the House?
The Ministry of Justice always ensures that it brings measures to the House in a way that is appropriate for them. Of course this measure will have scrutiny; statutory instrument procedure involves the scrutiny of the House. This measure will ensure that people can access the courts in an accessible way, without the need to spend excessive amounts of money.
I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I listened carefully to what the Minister just said, but what guarantee can she give us that the civil procedure rule committee will be able to consider the proposed small claims increase, which covers workplace injuries, independent of Government? Why can we not debate the measure on the Floor of the House?
As we see from the questions raised today, there is an opportunity for Members to make points they wish to make. Our Department is always listening, and there will be scrutiny through the statutory instrument procedure in due course.
Every time I am foolish enough to turn on the television, there are adverts from lawyers offering free advice on workplace injuries. Surely we cannot be in want of any more such advice.
My right hon. Friend makes an important point. We are here to serve the people, and we are here to serve people who have claims. People can still bring their claims through a very simple process in our courts. I should also mention that the Ministry of Justice has brought forward and is progressing an online system for money claims, which is achieving a great deal of satisfaction among users.
The Government have rightly exempted vulnerable road users from the proposed changes. However, two colleagues—say, two paramedics or two police officers—who are both injured at work on the roads could be treated quite differently, with one able to get legal advice and pay no cost to get compensation, and one having to fight insurers on their own, simply because one was injured on a motorbike and the other in an ambulance or squad car. Rather than hold working people to different standards, can the Government exempt all people injured in the course of their work?
We are concerned about the injury that is suffered, not the person’s profession. As I said, this measure will help people to access courts. The small claims limit for other money claims is £10,000, not £2,000, and people will still be able to get justice.
Short Prison Sentences: Homelessness
Far too many people on short sentences—almost 35%—struggle to find suitable accommodation. That is why we are now focusing on a pilot in Bristol, Pentonville and Leeds. We not only want to get ex-offenders into accommodation, but are putting £6.4 million into ensuring that they have right kind of support, with up to five hours a week on life skills and financial management skills, and access the right services.
I thank the Minister for his response. A study done by the charity Revolving Doors estimates that there was a 25-fold increase between October 2016 and June 2018 in the number of prisoners sleeping rough who have served less than six months. Does that information embarrass the Government and the Minister?
First, I pay tribute to Revolving Doors, which is a very impressive charity. I am afraid those are not the figures we have in the MOJ, but I am very happy to sit down with Revolving Doors and understand how it is arriving as such figures. Broadly speaking, sadly, the level of homelessness among people on short sentences has remained, in our terms, relatively static over the past decade, but I respect Revolving Doors, and I am very happy to look at that evidence with it.
When prisoners fall on that fine line between being criminals and actually being victims of crime themselves—I am particularly thinking of young people who are caught up in gangs and county lines-type drug dealing—what support is being given to them to make sure that if they are rehoused, they are rehoused away from the scene from their offending, so they are in a safe place and do not get dragged back into gang activity?
This is a very good challenge. We can use licence conditions to try to ensure that somebody does not return to the scene of their offending. The problem, as the hon. Lady will be aware, is that we of course have to balance that against the importance of family relationships for rehabilitation. We want to try to locate someone in a place where they will not be tempting into further reoffending, but we do not want to locate them in a place where they lose all contact with family and community.
Does the Minister agree that it is wrong for local authorities to discriminate against ex-offenders by putting them at the bottom of the queue, sometimes saying they have no local connections—through no fault of their own, if they have been in prison—and that ex-offenders should be treated fairly and equally, along with everyone else?
I agree 100%. That has now become easier to enforce through recent legislation, but we continue to work very closely with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. There are local councils that are doing fantastic work in housing ex-offenders, but it is true that ex-offenders can fall through the gaps. In particular, the pilot in Bristol, Pentonville and Leeds is an opportunity to demonstrate how we can work better with local authorities.
I am proud to have become a trustee of Nacro recently. Will the Minister continue to work with me and Nacro to reduce the number of prisoners who are released at the end of the week, which thereby reduces the number of services available to them?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the work she has done with Nacro. Indeed, we had an excellent hour-long session with Nacro on the issue of Friday releases. We are looking at this, but it is worth bearing it in mind that we cannot simply solve this by releasing people on Thursday. That would mean dealing with everybody who will otherwise come out on Friday, Saturday and Sunday as well, so we would have four times the workload on a Thursday. We are, however, looking for solutions to this problem.
Further to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), does the Minister recognise that housing allocation policies often mean it is difficult to remove an offender from an area where they have criminal connections, because they do not have local connections in the area to which it would be sensible to move them? What discussions is his Department having with the MHCLG about housing allocation policies supporting the relocation of those offenders?
The answer is that we have two formal mechanisms: we have a taskforce focused on housing and we have a taskforce focused particularly on rough sleeping. In both those scenarios, we are pushing very hard with the MHCLG to resolve many issues, of which that is an important one.
Care after Combat’s mentoring scheme for 360 veterans has achieved a fivefold reduction in reoffending. Quite rightly, we are spending a small amount to save £20 million in the system. What are the Government doing further to support these sorts of mentoring initiatives to tackle both homelessness and reoffending?
I pay tribute to Care after Combat, which I have had the opportunity to meet, along with the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), who has responsibility for veterans. There is a great deal of support, particularly that provided by military charities, and I would like to pay tribute to SSAFA—the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association—the Royal British Legion and, of course, Help for Heroes, which has done incredible work on the issue of offenders who are also veterans. It is important to understand, however, that the issues faced by veterans are often a subset of the issues faced by many of our offenders, particularly in relation to mental health, addiction, housing and employment. We need to think about them, whether they are veterans or civilians, in a single act.
EU Withdrawal Agreement: Co-operation on Justice
The withdrawal agreement will ensure a smooth and orderly departure from the EU on 29 March. It includes an implementation period until the end of 2020, during which existing civil and commercial judicial co-operation will continue. We have also agreed that the cases started before the end of the implementation period will be concluded under existing EU rules, and subsequent judgments in those cases will be enforced.
Police Scotland currently benefits from a strong relationship with other EU partners, such as Europol and Eurojust, which is vital for dealing with the cross-border crime that takes place. What assurances can the Minister give me that Police Scotland will continue to have such direct links after Brexit?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about Eurojust and Europol, which are under the direct remit of the Home Office, but we of course work closely with them. I was pleased to see references in the political declaration to mechanisms to ensure that the services and intelligence operations under them will continue.
The Minister will know that the Justice Committee has published two reports that set out some of the key areas that will be put at risk for British legal services, British companies and British citizens if we do not have legal continuity, should we face the regrettable event of a no deal. Is that why, perhaps, the Secretary of State was entirely right to write as he did in the Financial Times the other day?
I know that my hon. Friend, as Chair of the Justice Committee, has done a significant amount of work on this issue, and I have been pleased to respond to a number of debates that raised these important issues. The deal will allow us to continue working closely with the EU, specifically on family matters, which are important to so many citizens. We will continue to press for broader civil jurisdiction arrangements.
Can the Minister confirm that the Brexit talks on co-operation on justice and security have not yet been concluded, and that the limited text on justice and security in the political declaration is not legally binding? Can she give the House her best estimate of how long, were the House to vote for the withdrawal agreement, it would take to conclude the specific Brexit talks on justice and security? One year? Two years?
As the right hon. Gentleman will know, the political declaration sets out the framework for the negotiations that will go forward. I would encourage him to read the assessment the Government produced on 28 November on the security partnership, which compares the impact of the criminal justice and law enforcement proposals set out in the political declaration with a no deal scenario.
At any one time, there are about 5,000 EU nationals in our prisons, yet in the last six years, under the ineffective EU compulsory prisoner transfer agreement, only 217 have been sent back to prison in their own country. Will the Minister ensure that we can deport more EU nationals from our prisons once we leave the European Union?
My hon. Friend makes an important point about prisoner transfer. Since 2010, we have removed more than 44,000 foreign national offenders from our prisons, our immigration removal centres and the community. Of course, the EU prisoner transfer provisions facilitate those arrangements, but we have other measures in place with over 100 other countries to ensure that we can continue prisoner transfers.
The political declaration makes no reference to the Schengen information system database or the European criminal records information system. Both Police Scotland and the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service in Scotland are concerned about that, because both tools are fundamental to fighting and investigating crime. Can the Minister confirm that Scotland will lose access to these measures after Brexit?
As I mentioned, the Prime Minister has made it clear that she is seeking to ensure that the measures that underlay them, and the co-operation within them, will continue as far as possible post Brexit.
I should mention, because the hon. and learned Lady often asks about liaison with the Scottish Government, that I spoke to my counterpart, the Cabinet Secretary for Justice on 29 November, and he reiterated to me how pleased he was with our engagement at official level on the negotiations with the EU.
The Government have created a Brexit crisis through their rotten deal, which is abhorred by both sides of the House. While the Prime Minister runs scared of democracy and delays the meaningful vote, Cabinet responsibility has broken down, with Ministers pitching their own plan B or even plotting leadership bids. Planning for future judicial collaboration with Europe is suffering as a result. The Justice Committee says the Government are providing “little detail or certainty” about future judicial co-operation. The Lords EU Justice Sub-Committee warns of a “worrying level of complacency”. When will the Secretary of State pay as much attention to dealing with this problem as he does to problems in his own party?
My Department is making a lot of efforts to ensure we have the right deal. We have received £17 million for EU Brexit preparations. We have over 110 full-time employees, including newly recruited employees, working across deal and no deal. I would say, as the Lord Chancellor said in his FT article at the weekend, that the Conservative party is ensuring the future of our country, whereas the leader of the Labour party is just trying to make political points to ensure a general election.
Ease of Initiating Legal Proceedings
The Government are simplifying many application processes, making it much easier to initiate proceedings. Once a decision to get divorced has been made, one can now petition for a divorce online. Probate can be applied for online and a money claim can be issued, for up to £10,000, using our online courts process.
Will the Minister go a little further and say how she can make it easier for people to participate in proceedings once they have initiated them?
My hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point. It is important not only to be able to initiate proceedings easily, but participate in them. Recently, we had early testing of full video hearings held in a tax tribunal, enabling the applicant and the respondent to not have to travel to court or take any time off work. In fact, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs was based in Belfast in those cases and the applicants were elsewhere in the country—and, in one case, in Greece. That small scale evaluation shows that participants found them convenient and easy to understand. They will not be appropriate for every case, but this is technology we need to consider.
The number of litigants in person has shot up. What urgent action is the Ministry of Justice taking to ensure proper representation for people across the board?
Litigants in person do need support through our justice system, which is why, over the past few years, we have spent £6.5 million investing in helping them through the court process. Many of our reforms which form part of our £1 billion programme will make sure that forms are easier, applying to court is easier, getting to court and the whole process is easier for people whether they have a lawyer or not.
Will the Minister outline any intentions to review the legal aid process, which currently does not allow middle class families to access legal redress due to a lack of ability to pay bills and thereby pay for legal help and assistance?
As the hon. Gentleman will know, we are in the process of an extensive legal aid review, which will look at many aspects and report early in the new year. [Interruption.]
I hear the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) burbling from a sedentary position about the spirit of Christmas. I call Mr Barry Sheerman.
Mr Speaker, are we really going back to the old days when people used to say that the courts of England were open to everyone, just like the Ritz hotel? The truth is that access to justice in this country is being diminished. The Department’s budget has been cut badly. Indeed, in the area I am very interested in, miscarriages of justice, there is not the money to keep the commission going properly.
In my experience the hon. Gentleman is interested in every area of every policy in our public life.
I have now heard that phrase three times in debates I have taken part in. The reason various cuts were made in 2010 was because of the perilous financial situation that our Parliament found itself in. We in the Department are looking extremely carefully at how we deliver justice for people. We are investing £1 billion in our core reform programme, while ensuring we use taxpayers’ money efficiently and well.
Plenty of time left. I call Christian Matheson.
Prison Officers: Retention
Recruiting and retaining engaged and motivated staff is critical to making our prisons safer and stopping reoffending. We have spent an additional £100 million to ensure we have thousands of extra prison officers at the frontline, allowing us to run better regimes and improve staff-prisoner relationships. From October 2016 to September 2018, there was a net increase of 4,364 full-time equivalent prison officers. We know that the retention of staff will take more than a one-size-fits-all approach. Specific action is being taken where attrition is most acute.
Morale among prison officers is at an all-time low because of low pay, understaffing and soaring violence, and now a retirement age that could go as late as 68. Police officers get the same protection as prison officers, and they are allowed to retire at 60. Why can prison officers not?
Of course, a deal was offered to prison officers and rejected a couple of years or so ago, but to come back to the point about morale, it is important that we address violence in prisons. That is why we have increased the number of staff, why we are giving prison officers the tools that they need—for example, PAVA—and why we are determined to ensure that we can turn this increase in violence around.
It is clear that we have an issue with experienced prison officers leaving the service. Can my right hon. Friend reassure the House that, in line with best human resources practices, exit interviews are being conducted with staff before they leave so that we can address the issues that are causing them to leave the service?
My hon. Friend is right to say that that is best practice, and it does happen within the prison service. We are looking at the evidence of the effectiveness of that to ensure that we make best use of it. It is important that we learn from the experiences of prison officers and get their feedback, so that when prison officers do leave, we understand the reasons why.
The independent monitoring board at HMP Birmingham has said that standards have improved as a direct result of the reduction in the prison population and the addition of much needed staff. Already this year, urgent notifications have been issued at Nottingham, Birmingham, Bedford and Exeter prisons. How bad do things have to get before the Government launch a specific plan to re-recruit experienced prison officers who have left the prison system due to the Government’s austerity?
I am glad that the hon. Lady acknowledges that progress is being made at Birmingham, and it was right that we stepped in in August last year to turn that prison around. I reiterate that we have increased prison officer numbers very significantly, by 4,364, when our target was to recruit an additional 2,500 prison officers. We achieved that well ahead of schedule, and we have got the numbers increasing. We are seeing some signs of improvements in our prisons—not just at HMP Birmingham—but we need to build on that. It is still the early stages, but we are making progress.
Prison officers in HMP Lewes tell me that the scourge of mobile phones in the prison, which are used to co-ordinate violence and drugs, makes their job much more difficult. Does the Secretary of State therefore welcome the news that the Prisons (Interference with Wireless Telegraphy) Bill, which will block mobile phone signals in prisons, is likely to get Royal Assent this week?
I am delighted to do that and to pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the work that she put in on that Bill. It is an important step forward. She is right to highlight the problems with mobile phones. As a Government, we are determined to take action to address that, and her work helps us.
Offenders: Access to Education and Employment
In May, we published the education and employment strategy to create a system where each prisoner is set on a path to employment, with prison education work geared from the outset towards employment on release. We have launched the New Futures Network and appointed a CEO to drive its roll-out. The NFN identifies where skill gaps exist and works with employers to fill them. We are also empowering governors to commission education provision that leads to work. Activity to appoint the new education suppliers who will deliver the curricula that governors have designed is almost complete.
My right hon. Friend mentioned the New Futures Network. Will he expand a bit more on how that is achieving employment for offenders upon release?
The New Futures Network brokers partnerships between prisons and employers in England and Wales, which help businesses to fill skills gaps and prisoners to find employment on release. The NFN has a central team based in London that works with large national employers. We are also placing employment brokers across England and Wales to work with small and medium-sized enterprises and regional businesses. I am pleased to say that since the publication of the strategy in May, more than 100 new organisations have registered an interest in working with offenders.
I have been working with a constituent who has recently completed a nine-and-a-half-year prison sentence. He has reminded me that in that time, a great deal has moved online—the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. and learned Member for South East Cambridgeshire (Lucy Frazer), referred to initiating legal proceedings online. My constituent says that that places him at a disadvantage when it comes to accessing services and applying for jobs, so what steps are the Department taking to ensure that offenders gain digital skills and retain them?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. Digital skills are already taught in many prisons. We are empowering governors to have more control over the curriculum, but we are also determined to ensure that there is some consistency, so from next April our core common curriculum will include ICT, which must be taught in every prison.
It is a good idea to empower governors to make the right choices for their establishments, either as individuals or in clusters, but does the Department intend to give them a sufficient budget to enable them to do that in a way that will actually make a difference?
We want to ensure that the path to employment is set out for every prisoner, that all prisoners have that opportunity to receive the education that they need, and that there is a focus on work. That is a priority for our Department, and I am confident that we can deliver on it.
Reoffending rates remain stubbornly high, but in Magilligan prison in my constituency, prisoners reaching the end of their sentence are allowed out under close supervision to work in the community. Does the Secretary of State agree that such action leads to a reduction in reoffending and should be replicated throughout the United Kingdom?
That is an excellent point. Workplace release on temporary licence has a key role to play in giving prisoners employment opportunities and easing the transition from prison life to post-prison existence. I am keen to ensure that we do what we can with workplace ROTL, and I should like it to be used more.
What further action can be taken to encourage more employers to offer such opportunities during the final period of a sentence? That is being done very effectively at Thorn Cross prison in Appleton Thorn, near Warrington.
Encouraging employers is very much what the New Futures Network is about. I sense a change of attitude among employers: more and more of them want to do this, because they recognise that there are benefits for them as well as for society as a whole. As I have said, more than 100 employers have signed up to the network, and I encourage those who are following our proceedings closely to do as much as possible on this front.
The Secretary of State will be aware of the disproportionate levels of often undiagnosed special educational needs and disability—especially difficulties with speech and language, dyslexia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder—in the prison population. What measures has he introduced to ensure that all those prisoners are assessed and then appropriately supported in their education?
We are keen to develop specialist education plans when people come into prisons, because that is when we need to identify issues such as those that the hon. Lady has mentioned. However, the really important point that she has raised is the need for us to work across Government. It is not just about what happens in the Prison Service or the Ministry of Justice; we need to co-ordinate with, for instance, the national health service, the Department for Work and Pensions and local authorities. If we are to turn people’s lives around, we need a cross-Government approach. I am pleased that the Reducing Reoffending Board has been established, and that there is a real willingness across Government to make progress.
Preventing drones from going into prisons is, of course, a huge priority. First, that means working to identify and catch the criminal gangs who are flying them in; secondly, it means electronic measures to interrupt the drones and make it possible to interrogate those people; and, thirdly and most fundamentally, it means protective security. For example, Mr Speaker, if there is a good grille on the window, you cannot stick your hand out of the window and take the drugs from the drone.
That is a useful piece of practical advice from the Minister. I am deeply indebted to him.
Drug use in prisons frequently fuels serious violence, but those who fly the drones or throw the drugs over the walls often receive little more than a ticking off. What more can be done to dissuade people—especially young people— from such behaviour?
I know that my hon. Friend does wonderful work with the prison in her constituency. As she says, we need to take action, and we are taking action. There have been 40 convictions of people using drones, and we have imposed 140 years’-worth of prison sentences. No one should be in any doubt that importing drugs into prisons with a drone is a very serious crime, and I am pleased to say that, thanks to the Department’s work since 2015, we are getting on top of the problem.
The Minister mentioned in July and re-emphasised today the importance of jamming equipment in prisons; how many prisons have that equipment?
First, that is classified information, but, secondly, the answer is not that many prisons. It is very expensive equipment to use, but we are looking at an electronic fencing technique which has been deployed in Guernsey. We can learn a lot from Guernsey prison: if that electronic fence in Guernsey works, it is a good cheap solution. We would need to check its technical specifications and then we could look at rolling it out.
Prisons: Prevention of Violence
Violence in prisons is fundamentally driven by three things: drugs, the conditions in the prison, and relationships between prison officers and prisoners. We are addressing all three. To cut down on drugs, we are putting much more perimeter security in place to make it more difficult to get drugs in. Secondly, we are investing a great deal in decency and cleanliness in prisons. But the most important thing is the training and support for our hard-working prison officers so they can develop the right relationships with prisoners—ones that are strict but also humane—in order to bring proper behaviour management into place.
Clearly reducing violence in prisons does depend on effective training of prison officers, but what assessment has my hon. Friend made of improvements in the way violent offenders are handled?
We repeatedly survey this; we have a specialist team looking at it. We have a long study under the violence reduction strategy, and the real conclusion is that it is about training. It is about what happens at the cell door—about how we develop respectful relationships in the same way that a good teacher would. There are high expectations on prison officers and on prisoners, so that we can have a safe, humane relationship that also has boundaries in place to control behaviour.
This challenge is absolutely right; we are focusing initially on 10 prisons, as it is difficult to achieve cultural change in 120 prisons simultaneously. The idea is to develop in those 10 prisons the right standard model on drugs, violence and decency, and if we are successful, as I believe we will be by August, to then roll that out across the rest of the estate.
The Minister yet again comes to the House all gung-ho, even though he has absolutely no reason to be since safety in our prisons continues to be compromised and they remain in a state of emergency. One such example is HMP Birmingham, one of the most dangerous prisons in the country with conditions there found to be so bad by the prisons inspector that control was taken away from G4S. At the very minimum will the Minister give me assurances, or a guarantee, that this prison will not be returned to the private sector?
As I have said on a number of occasions, this is not fundamentally about private and public: there are good private prisons and good public prisons, and there are bad private prisons and bad public prisons. But I will give this assurance: unless G4S can demonstrate that it can take back that prison and run it both well and sustainably, we will not be returning the prison to G4S.
Legal Advice Deserts
I am grateful to the hon. Lady, who chairs the all-party group on legal aid and has done a lot of work in this area. We recognise that in some sparsely populated areas it is more difficult to find service providers, but the Legal Aid Agency regularly reviews market capacity to make sure there is adequate provision across the country and moves quickly to fill any gaps that it identifies. At the latest civil legal aid tender, the number of offices providing access to advice increased by 39% for immigration and asylum, by 188% for welfare benefits and by 7% for debt and housing.
With homelessness up by 70%, with universal credit wreaking absolute havoc on housing costs and with 1 million properties unfit for occupation, why do the new figures reveal that there are 1 million people with no access to a legal aid-provided housing lawyer at all and 15 million people in areas where there is only one provider, raising huge issues of capacity and potentially conflicts of interest? Will the review of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, when we finally get to see it, address that issue so that people everywhere in the country can have access to the legal aid services they need?
The hon. Lady is right to identify the fact that dealing with housing issues is important. As at today’s date, there is at least one provider offering housing and debt services in all the 134 procurement areas except for seven, and the Legal Aid Agency is doing what it can to ensure that appropriate services are available in those seven areas. It is due to launch a further tender in areas where there is currently low access to services, and that tender will begin on 17 December.
Across Cornwall, access to a legal aid lawyer for housing and families is particularly difficult. I have raised that matter before. What can the Minister do to create a greater incentive for lawyers to take up that work?
Cornwall is a sparsely populated area and there are difficulties there, but there is always access to the telephone service. It is right that we should look not only at face-to-face advice but at where technology can help to deliver legal advice to people.
The hon. Lady makes an important point about ensuring that we have support for those who are most vulnerable, but I would like to make two points on welfare benefits, which she has highlighted. First, the most important outcome for benefit claimants is that the decisions on their claims should be right first time. This avoids the need to go to court at all, and my Department is working closely with the Department for Work and Pensions to ensure efficient decision making. I have met the Minister twice to ensure that we get those decisions right first time. Secondly, while decisions on welfare claims significantly impact the lives of often vulnerable people, the claims are often not complicated. We are making changes to the tribunal system to ensure that those cases are handled simply, effectively and more quickly.
As I have recognised, there are areas of the country that suffer. The Legal Aid Agency looks at those areas, and re-procurement tender exercises are going out in seven of them.
Order. I am not sure whether the hon. Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) is seeking to take part in Question 12 or anticipating Question 13.
I am anticipating Question 13.
It is the latter. We will get there when we are ready, and we are grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s enthusiasm.
The Law Commission of England and Wales says that working people on low incomes are being systematically denied the right to a fair trial because of restrictive legal aid rules. When will the Government act in this shocking and shameful situation?
The hon. Gentleman will have heard that we are doing a review of legal aid, which will be published early in the new year. I was interested to read the recent Scottish Government report on legal aid, which implements a number of the things that we are already doing, including using technology to help our court processes.
The current Prime Minister unleashed the Home Office’s hostile environment against migrants, and the Windrush scandal shows just how easily people can fall foul of this Government’s complex and cruel immigration rules. It is even tougher for those who have to navigate this hostile environment without legal advice, yet access to legal aid-funded immigration advice has fallen by 68% under the Tories, from 120,000 cases in 2010 to 39,000 cases this year. So do the Government regret scrapping such publicly funded legal advice that can save people from unfair decisions and deportations, and if so, will they reinstate it?
The hon. Gentleman has not made that offer. The Opposition have made an offer in relation to welfare, but not, I note, in relation to immigration. Let me remind him that people can already get legal advice for asylum and non-asylum cases, and for cases involving detention, the Special Immigration Appeals Commission, domestic violence and trafficking. I want to make it clear to the House and to everyone who is listening that people are often not claiming legal aid because they do not believe they are entitled to it, because the Opposition and some others suggest that it is not available.
Prisons: Mobile Phones
Fundamentally, a mobile phone needs to be moved by a person, it is a metal object and it transmits, which means that the three ways of dealing with a mobile telephone are to get intelligence on the organised criminal gangs that are moving them around, to use metal detectors to discover the devices, and to use electronic measures to identify where the devices are located within prisons, to jam the signals and to interrogate the calls.
It has been reported that Anthony Russell, a contestant on “The X Factor”, used a mobile phone to communicate with a convicted prisoner by FaceTime from the ITV studios, of all places. Will the Minister consider making it a specific criminal offence for anyone knowingly to communicate with someone in the criminal justice system?
I am happy to sit down with my hon. Friend. It is absolutely a criminal offence to have a mobile telephone in prison, but the complexities of what my hon. Friend suggests go a long way beyond that. It is certainly not an offence to communicate with a prisoner. In fact, we encourage prisoners to continue family relations, which is important to prevent reoffending and protect the public.
While we of course do not want prisoners using mobile phones, we are happy for prisoners to watch television. The Minister knows that I am unhappy about his decision to buy televisions from China instead of from Cello in my constituency. Will he look again at the criteria for such public contracts?
This is a kind of debate between mobile televisions from another part of the world or mobile televisions from Bishop Auckland.
The hon. Lady powerfully represents her constituency’s interests. The issues around procurement are complex, but I will look carefully at the case. However, it is important to bear in mind that we also have a duty to get value for money for the taxpayer and ensure that we are purchasing affordable goods.
We are determined to protect debtors from aggressive behaviour by enforcement agents while balancing that against the need for effective enforcement of debts. We launched a public call for evidence on 25 November to help us to understand the extent of the problem, and it is open until 17 January.
A constituent of mine, John Stevens, lost thousands after he was threatened by bailiffs in connection with his son’s debt, which arose through no fault of his own. My constituent was never told his rights, and there was no independent regulator to which he could appeal. Given that 40% of people contacted by bailiffs are threatened or intimidated, will the Minister take action following the call for evidence to right those wrongs?
I am sorry to hear about the experience of my hon. Friend’s constituent and I am happy to discuss the matter further with him. The 2014 reforms require bailiffs to send a letter before they visit to set out where a debtor can go for advice, but we want to ensure that that mechanism and others are working. We are asking that question in our consultation, so I encourage his constituent to tell us more about his experience in our call for evidence.
I welcome the Government’s call for evidence. Since it was launched, the Minister has said that a small number of bailiffs are breaking the law. The truth is that a YouGov poll shows that a third of people contacted by bailiffs in the past year have experienced law breaking, so this is much more than a small problem. Will the Government therefore change the language and see where the evidence takes them, rather than concluding that a minority of bailiffs are behaving in this way?
It is important to gather the evidence, which is what this consultation will do. As the hon. Lady will know, because she asked a question at the previous Justice questions when the Citizens Advice report had just come out, we want to examine the evidence fully, and we are asking for evidence not just from individuals, but from the enforcement agencies themselves. My officials have asked Citizens Advice for a meeting to discuss the content of the report, which identifies a large amount of inappropriate behaviour.
Prison Officers: Safety
We do not tolerate violence against our dedicated and hard-working prison officers. We are strengthening frontline officer numbers and rolling out a key worker scheme to improve prisoner-staff relationships and to tackle the causes of violence. We are giving officers the tools they need, such as body-worn cameras and PAVA spray, to respond where incidents do occur.
The Secretary of State will know that, in the past year, there has been a 20% increase in violent crime against prison officers. Does he agree there is a disparity between prosecutions when members of the public are assaulted and prosecutions when people in the public service are assaulted? Also, is it not correct that an assault against a prison officer is just as bad as an assault against a policeman?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. We have to take assaults against prison officers very seriously. They are putting their lives on the frontline, and we are working closely with the police and the Crown Prosecution Service to make sure that crimes committed in prison are dealt with effectively. There are good examples of work with the police and the CPS, such as at HMP Isis. The Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Act 2018 came into force in November, and it increases the maximum custodial sentence from six months to 12 months for those who assault emergency workers, including prison officers.
Recent incidents at Long Lartin Prison in my constituency show that more work is still needed on prison officer safety. Can the Secretary of State assure my constituents who work at Long Lartin that the Government do not consider it job done on prison safety and that they will continue to explore further ways to improve prison safety?
Indeed, we will continue to find ways of making improvements. I visited Long Lartin in the summer and met a number of my hon. Friend’s constituents who work as prison officers to discuss this issue. The high assault figures are something that we have to address, which is why we have taken the measures I have already outlined. We will continue to focus on bringing down those numbers.
Does the Secretary of State agree that the high number of prisoners with mental health conditions is also a serious problem for prison officers? Will he look into the two separate incidents at Nottingham Prison where, even though my constituents had been independently assessed by psychiatrists as needing to be transferred to secure mental health beds, it took five months for them to be transferred?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising those cases and I will certainly look at the incidents she mentions. She is right to highlight the importance of addressing mental health issues within prisons. A very large proportion of prisoners have mental health issues and, in answer to an earlier question, I addressed the need to work closely with the NHS and the Department of Health and Social Care to ensure that we address such points.
Today the terms of reference for the review of the criminal injuries compensation scheme have been announced. Compensation has long been an important part of the Government’s support for victims of violent crime, and we are determined to ensure that every victim gets the compensation to which they are entitled. The review will look at the scope of the scheme, its eligibility rules, the value and composition of awards and how to provide easier access to compensation. The review will give particular consideration to victims of child sexual abuse and terrorism and look to ensure continued financial sustainability. We have separately announced our intention to remove the pre-1979 same roof rule from the scheme and we will table an amended scheme before Parliament as soon as possible.
We know the Government see public services as a cash cow for the private sector, but the privatisation of the probation service has been an abject failure. The contract had to be terminated two years early, despite a £0.5 billion bailout. The privatised service failed to reduce reoffending, so why is the Secretary of State proposing to privatise the service again in 2020? Is this not an example of ideology over plain common sense?
I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is best placed to lecture on common sense versus ideology.
The reoffending rate has fallen in the time since “Transforming Rehabilitation” and we would like it to fall further. There are issues with how the system is working, which is why we took the entirely pragmatic approach of bringing the contracts to an end and making some important and necessary changes to ensure that we can do more to reduce reoffending.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. Further to the Secretary of State’s answer a few moments ago and the tabling today of the written ministerial statement on the review of the overall scheme, let me say that earlier this year we committed to remove the pre-1979 same roof rule more swiftly. In that context, I pay tribute to the work of the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) in her campaign on this issue. As the Secretary of State has said, we anticipate, subject to the parliamentary timetable, to be able to lay an order as swiftly as possible.
Can the Lord Chancellor assist me in finding out the answer to a question that the Attorney General and the Brexit Secretary have been unable to answer: how much taxpayers’ money did the UK Government spend fighting the litigation that established that the article 50 notice can be unilaterally revoked?
I certainly cannot give that answer this morning, but of course there is no intention to revoke article 50.
It is of course for magistrates to make decisions and they do have the right to overturn recommendations. However, as my hon. Friend says, when making those decisions, they should be in possession of the full facts from the youth offending teams, the police and the CPS. She is right to highlight the importance of information sharing and sharing that information in good time. The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins), and I continue to work on that.
The Government’s ideological experiment of privatising probation has been a calamitous failure. It was such a flawed idea that even this Government have had to cancel the current private contracts, which were costing the public more and more money while leaving them less and less safe. Yet the Government are set to re-tender those contracts back to the private sector. Interserve is currently the largest probation provider, supervising 40,000 offenders, yet it is now in rescue talks, trying not to become the next Carillion. So will the Justice Secretary commit today to ensuring that Interserve is not awarded any of the new private probation contracts?
We will award the contracts to those best placed to carry them out. I have to say that the hon. Gentleman’s hostility to the private sector, in all its forms, in all contexts, is not a sensible or pragmatic approach to trying to ensure that we get best value for money for the taxpayer while making improvements to reducing reoffending.
Senior managers at Lloyds-HBOS were found guilty of a scandalous fraud against their own business customers but, thus far, the bank itself has avoided or evaded any corporate sanction. Would my right hon. Friend support the Solicitor General’s efforts to make failure to prevent an economic crime a corporate offence?
My hon. Friend, who campaigns tirelessly on these issues, will be aware that we ran a call for evidence on corporate criminal liability to determine whether the current law is adequate. This is a complex part of the law and consultation responses offered a broad range of views. We are currently analysing those with Departments across Government and we will publish our response in 2019.
First, I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for the work he does in supporting the work of Nottingham Prison, which is one of the 10 priority prisons. We are therefore bringing scanners into those prisons. We are currently shipping those scanners over, but a range of different types of scanning will be taking place: X-ray scanners used on an intelligence-led basis, which can penetrate through the skin; metal detectors on a more regular basis as people go through; and additional dogs.
The Minister responsible for rehabilitation will be aware of the great work that groups such as St Mary Magdalene church in Torquay do with ex-offenders. That work could be enhanced if such groups could use the old Torquay magistrates court, which is still empty. Will he agree to meet me and representatives of the church to discuss how, if they acquired the building, they could make a real difference?
I am happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss that matter, and if any other colleagues wish to meet as well, I am sure they will do so.
The big legislative change that we are trying to introduce, and for which we would very much like to get cross-party support, is a provision to allow us to do proper testing on Spice—an endeavour that is in a private Member’s Bill that is currently trying to make its way through the House. As the hon. Gentleman has pointed out, Spice is a real problem. It is provoking unbelievably aggressive behaviour and it is extremely bad for people’s health. We can search along the perimeter but yes, we also need to do more in the law.
Citing reputational reasons, one of my local authority employers failed to keep on a member of staff after a probation period because of a spent conviction that was known about. Would public sector employers not get a better reputation if they helped to turn people’s lives around when they want to put something back into society?
I could not agree more. One of the best ways to prevent reoffending and therefore protect the public is to help people into employment. Ex-prisoners can be some of the most loyal and hard-working employees one can find. We encourage all employers to take a realistic, pragmatic approach. Many convictions are absolutely irrelevant to the work that the person is doing or to public protection. The best way to protect the public is to provide a job.
First, let me share our very sincere condolences. It is the most horrifying thing to lose a 22-month-old in that way. Secondly, we are currently consulting on changing the law to have a life sentence for causing death by dangerous driving or by careless driving under the influence. We can do an enormous amount more, both legally and in terms of road safety and driving tests. We must bring down the number of people who are killed. The hon. Gentleman raises a particularly tragic incident, and I would be delighted to meet him to discuss it.
Last week, the House passed the Courts and Tribunals (Judiciary and Functions of Staff) Bill, which is an important part of court modernisation. Does the Lord Chancellor accept that there remains a pressing need to introduce the remaining primary legislation necessary to underpin the rest of Sir Michael Briggs’ reforms?
I share the desire of my hon. Friend the Chair of the Justice Committee to do that when parliamentary time allows. Of course, there are currently some pressures on parliamentary time.
We do an assessment whenever a prisoner comes in. In a prison such as Humber, for example, almost a quarter of the prisoners are currently on some form of drug rehabilitation treatment. Those are very high numbers. Drugs in prison are a big issue: nearly 50% of prisoners have alcohol or drug-related addiction issues. The NHS takes the lead on that; I would be happy to get back to the hon. Lady with the figures.
Will the Minister endorse the excellent work of Youth of Walsall and its campaign “Real Knives, Real Lives”, which seeks to educate young people on the dangers of carrying a knife?
I welcome any initiative that aims to combat knife crime by educating young people about the potentially devastating impact it can have, not only on victims and their families but on the perpetrators themselves. I pay tribute to the work that my hon. Friend has highlighted and would be happy to learn more about it. We must all do more to tackle serious violence, which is exactly what the Government are doing.
In the name of fairness to colleagues, those asking a question should confine themselves to a single short sentence.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that question. She rightly highlights a very important issue. I work closely with my opposite number in the Home Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins), on tackling domestic abuse. We will be publishing a draft domestic abuse Bill and consultation response shortly. In respect of the hon. Lady’s specific point, I am very happy to meet her and discuss it further.
With which specific countries are the Government negotiating new compulsory prisoner transfer agreements?
The Government already have agreements with around 100 countries in relation to prisoner transfers.
I think the hon. Lady will have been pleased to see a paragraph in relation to extradition in the future framework.
Ministers will be aware of the very low attainment in reading among prisoners. Is anything being done to try to improve the situation? I understand that the average reading age in a prison is 11.
It is a very serious problem. As my right hon. and learned Friend has pointed out, almost half the prisoners have a reading age of under 11. Perhaps 25% of prisoners have a reading age of six. There is an enormous amount that we can do and that is where the education and employment strategy comes in, which is about making sure that the education is relevant and leads to a job.
Various changes were made as a result of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012. As the hon. Gentleman will know, we are undertaking a significant review. My Department has met with more than 100 organisations or individuals to discuss the changes that were brought in and my Department will be reporting in the new year.
Will the Secretary of State commit to implementing the recommendations of the independent Mental Health Act review to reform mental health tribunals and will the Government commit adequate resourcing to the recommendations?
As the hon. Lady will be aware, the Government have welcomed the independent review of the Mental Health Act and have rightly committed to reform mental health legislation. Some of the review’s recommendations, as she alludes to, have particular implications for civil justice and particular reforms to the Mental Health Tribunal. My Department is working closely with the Department of Health and Social Care to consider the review, its recommendations and implications in detail and we will respond shortly.
Today, it has been confirmed that three quarters of all Welsh female prisoners are serving a custodial sentence of less than six months. There is no women’s centre in Wales, so may I ask the Minister to introduce new funding for a women’s centre in Wales, so that we are able to have different ways of putting women forward, other than custodial sentences, because it is not working?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Something that runs through our female offender strategy is moving away from short sentences to alternative provisions. He highlights a particular issue in the context of Wales. It is something on which I have had discussions with the previous Cabinet Secretary, Alun Davies, and I look forward to meeting his successor in that role to have further discussions.
Many of those convicted of murder under joint enterprise thought that they would be able to seek appeals of their convictions after the Supreme Court ruling that the law had taken a wrong turn. However, the recent loss of the Laura Mitchell case, the first brought by the Criminal Cases Review Commission, has shown that the appeal bar is impossibly high. What will the Government do about that?
I know that the hon. Lady has campaigned very hard on this. I was very pleased to answer her debate shortly after my appointment. As she knows, the appeal bar is set in relation to all cases, not just in relation to this case, but I am very happy to discuss this issue in a meeting with her.
It was two years ago that the then Secretary of State for Justice agreed to outlaw the cross-examination of survivors of domestic abuse by the perpetrators of their crime, yet the misery goes on. When will the Government outlaw that?
We intend to bring forward legislation on this very shortly.
Ofsted’s recent annual report yet again raised its concerns about high levels of violence in children’s secure training centres. The use of pain-inducing restraint techniques in youth prisons and right across the secure estate has been found to carry up to a 60% chance of causing serious injury to children. This is Government-sanctioned abuse of children. When is it going to end?
As the hon. Lady will be aware, we have commissioned an independent review, which is being led by Charlie Taylor. I look forward to receiving his report in due course.
When we debated legal aid last month, the Minister was expecting to publish the LASPO review before Christmas. It is already eight months late, so will she tell us the date on which it will now be published? Why are we not getting it until next year? What is the reason for the delay?
I am happy to take the hon. Gentleman’s question. I remind him what he said to the Law Society several months ago—that it is important to take time to review this important subject. It is important and, as I have said, we have met over 100 organisations and individuals. We finished our final engagement with organisations at the end of last month and we will publish the review early in the new year.