The Secretary of State was asked—
I am pleased to tell the House that there are currently 47 Nightingale courtrooms in operation, of which 28 are used for Crown court purposes, and we are in the process of extending the operation of 32 of those until the end of March. I am sure colleagues across the House will welcome that. In addition, we are in the process of reopening 60 existing courtrooms in the Crown court estate that had been closed owing to social distancing; more than half have already reopened. When all of that is done, we expect to have about 500 Crown courtrooms available, of which well over half will be capable of accommodating jury trials.
I am grateful for that answer. We have one such Nightingale court in Nottingham, but the backlogs across Nottingham and Nottinghamshire have grown to be extraordinary, with constituents finding the dates for their cases going to the back end of 2022. That will not do. It is bad for victims and bad for the strength of those cases as memories fade for witnesses and similar. Will the Minister commit to meet me and other Nottingham and Nottinghamshire Members to talk about what more we can do in our community to get the backlogs down?
The relevant Justice Minister would be delighted to meet and discuss these issues. Naturally, the covid pandemic has had a significant impact on the justice system, but that is why the Government have: invested an extra quarter of a billion pounds in covid recovery; hired 1,600 staff for Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service; deployed the Cloud video platform that at its peak was hearing 20,000 cases across the system remotely; and had the 47 extra Nightingale courtrooms. I am sure the House will unite in welcoming those measures. Our aim is to get cases heard as quickly as possible.
Nationally we have a record high Crown court backlog of about 60,000 cases a result of the court closures and a decade of Tory cuts. Will the Government commit to continuing Nightingale courts until the backlog has cleared? When does the Minister think that will happen?
First, the number of outstanding cases is principally a function of the pandemic. The hon. Member may be interested to know that in March 2020—before the covid pandemic—the outstanding case load was about 39,000, which the House will be interested to hear was substantially lower than the 47,000 bequeathed by the last Labour Government. I have laid out the investments we are making in court recovery, including the quarter of a billion pounds being spent, and this financial year there is no limitation on Crown court sitting days. The Government’s commitment to hearing these cases is without question.
Oldfield Report: Probation Service Dynamic Framework
I thank my hon. Friend for his question and for his interest and input in this area. I welcome the findings and recommendations of Richard Oldfield’s report, and in particular his primary conclusion that we should do more to encourage the participation of smaller organisations in the delivery of rehabilitation services. We are looking at how we can use more grants rather than contracts where it is appropriate to do so as well as how to simplify the qualification process and bidding process for the dynamic framework.
I declare that I am the founder and chairman of a small charity working in prisons and probation. I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend for that answer. I congratulate Richard Oldfield on his report and the Minister on commissioning it. I am pleased to hear about the progress being made. Does the Minister agree that we need a culture change across the justice system, with managers and commissioners being prepared to trust the small community-based organisations that can deliver such good value, and that that entails having a bolder attitude to risk?
I completely agree with my hon. Friend. It is really important that local community services deliver rehabilitative services in the communities that they serve and we are trying to ensure that culture change. Of the 26 organisations delivering rehabilitative services in the unified model, 23 are voluntary and community sector organisations, but we will do more to ensure that those small community organisations deliver services for us.
Beating Crime Plan
I speak regularly with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary on the actions our Departments are taking to beat crime. Our joint approach will protect the law-abiding majority, swiftly bring criminals to justice, and ensure that offenders are managed with rigour and discipline. Significant work is already under way to deliver on our beating crime plan, including more joint supervision of offenders by probation and the police, working with other local services.
I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for his answer. One of the key focuses in the beating crime plan is tackling violent crime, something I wholeheartedly endorse, but we know that this often follows drug offences. Can I urge him to review drug sentencing, because often the sentences that go with drug offences do not act as the real deterrent we need to make sure we do not end up with narco-neighbourhoods across the country?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who speaks passionately for his community. He knows of course that sentencing guidelines are a matter for the independent Sentencing Council. Indeed, earlier this year it issued revised guidelines for drug offences that reflect many of the issues he raises, including the increased exploitation of children and vulnerable people to facilitate drug offences, changes to drug purity and the types of drugs commonly in circulation. Of course, I will continue to speak with him about these important matters.
As we know, antisocial behaviour blights all our towns and cities, and Wrexham is no exception. I welcome this Government’s strong stance to tackle crime through community sentencing orders. Will my right hon. and learned Friend congratulate Inspector Luke Hughes and the Wrexham town police station on their work, collaboratively with the council and other agencies, to tackle antisocial behaviour as our town has reopened and on championing the sobriety tags?
I am more than happy to join in that praise. My hon. Friend is right to highlight the local work that has been going on in Wrexham and in Wales. As announced in our beating crime plan, we are going to be trialling alcohol monitoring tags with prison leavers in Wales later this year. That I think will provide a clear incentive for offenders to control their drinking and ensure swift consequences if their alcohol-related risk is escalating.
Surely any beating crime plan worth its name should include fraud. Ministers must be aware that a person is more likely to be victim of fraud than of any other crime, yet according to the Home Affairs Committee, a mere 3% of cases reported to Action Fraud even result in a charge or a summons, let alone a conviction. The system is failing and failing badly. When are Ministers going to do something about it?
Well, we are. The announcement of a replacement of the Action Fraud system was made some time ago. That represents just the sharp end of the Government’s response to this growing issue. I can assure the hon. Member that the work that goes on with colleagues in the Home Office on fighting economic crime more generally and fraud is sustained. It involves work with the private sector, particularly the financial services industry, to help to design out fraud. So this is an end-to-end approach, and I can assure her that the work continues apace.
The Government committed in the Queen’s Speech to bring forward a Bill to enshrine the rights of victims in law, and the hon. Lady can expect to see a consultation on this issue later this year.
As the Minister says, we first heard about this in the Queen’s Speech over four months ago now, and we have heard nothing since. In the year ending March 2020, the crime survey for England and Wales estimates that more than 600,000 women aged 16 to 74 were victims of sexual assault. For these women, who desperately need to see protections enshrined in law, I ask the Minister: when can we expect this legislation on the Floor of the House?
I do recognise the issue that the hon. Lady raises, and she will of course appreciate that we have spent significantly more money on increasing the number of independent sexual violence advisers across the whole of England and Wales. However, she is right to be impatient for the Bill, and as I say, she will see a consultation on this shortly.
It is hard for members of the public to feel confidence in the statutory provisions outlawing the rough sex defence in the Domestic Abuse Act 2021 while a young woman such as Sophie Moss can be so violently killed and the perpetrator receive a sentence of just four years. Does my hon. Friend think there is an opportunity with the victims Bill to look seriously at the length of sentence for this kind of homicide, and could I urge him to press the Director of Public Prosecutions as to why so many of these cases are prosecuted as manslaughter, not murder?
That case obviously caused consternation not just in the House but across the country, and Law Officers will be looking carefully at its implications. I am more than happy to consider the issues raised by my hon. Friend during the passage of the victims Bill, not least because we want to ensure that every victim of crime in this country not only gets justice, but sees that justice is done.
For six years the Government have promised a victims Bill. Indeed, five Secretaries of State have promised that that will be their priority—will this be the one, Mr Speaker?—but meanwhile, victims are left waiting and traumatised, their rights ignored. I recently spoke to the father of a young girl who reported sexual assault two years ago. Delay after delay has meant that the family have been left not knowing when their case will be heard, with no explanation, poor communication, and the young girl having to relive her trauma. We now learn that one-third of victims would not report a future crime because of past experience. Labour has a victims Bill ready to go. Will the Minister work with us to bring that in? If not, will he tell that young girl why the Government continue to treat her as an afterthought?
I think that is a deeply unfair characterisation of the work to which all Ministers, and indeed the professional public servants who are involved in victim and witness care across the country, including police officers, devote themselves every day. Having said that, we recognise that many victims are dissatisfied with the support they get, and they do not necessarily see the victims’ charter writ large in their experience of the criminal justice system. As I said, we will soon be bringing forward legislation to enshrine their rights in law, and a consultation on that matter will be issued in the coming days.
Sentences for Rape
The maximum penalty for rape is life imprisonment, and already rapists rightly receive significant sentences, with the average sentence in 2020 being more than 10 years. The Government believe that those who commit rape should spend more of their sentence in prison, and under the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, currently before Parliament, we will increase the time that they spend behind bars.
In 2019-20 just 3% of reported rapes led to a prosecution—an historic low. It may be that life sentences can be imposed, but of those who received a jail sentence since this Government came to power, almost 3,000 rapists have been jailed for six years or less. How can the Government claim to reassure victims that justice will be served with those appalling figures?
As I said earlier, the average sentence for rape is more than 10 years, and two-thirds of those convicted of that appalling crime receive more than seven years in prison. However, the hon. Lady is right, and as the Lord Chancellor and I have said before in this House, the number of cases of this horrendous crime that get to court are not high enough. I am leading a taskforce, which includes the Crown Prosecution Service and police leaders across the country, to drive that number upwards. We are determined to get more cases into court, so that more victims see justice done.
Prison Officer Retirement Age
Our prison officers have done a truly remarkable job during the pandemic, and through their decisive actions and rapid contact tracing, literally hundreds if not thousands of prisoners’ lives have been saved. Although there are no plans to revisit the retirement age, we are pursuing a series of initiatives to boost morale, safety and retention, and ensure that prisons are as secure and rehabilitative as possible.
The Government have previously stated that because of the higher potential for serious injury and fatality among firefighters and police, they do not consider prison officers deserving of the same pension age protections and the right to retire at 60. With serious violence against staff still plaguing our prisons, does the Minister accept that the message received by prison officers is that they will have to wait until one of their own is killed in the line of duty before their safety concerns are taken seriously?
The hon. Lady makes an important point. Mercifully, during the pandemic violence has come down in prisons, which we welcome. It is also important not to make false comparisons. For example, employee contributions for police officers are at 12%, and 14% for fire officers, and 5.45% for prison officers. Of course we keep such matters under review. We made a generous offer in 2017 to bring forward the retirement date when the taxpayer would pay the entirety of employee contributions, but I regret that that was rejected by the POA.
Our prison officers do fantastic work keeping prisons and communities safe, and they have gone above and beyond throughout the pandemic. However, the Ministry of Justice’s own figures show that more than 86,000 years of prison officer experience has been lost since 2010. These key workers are moving on to better-paid work that does not involve abuse and assaults on a daily basis. Why, then, did the Government reject the pay review body’s recommendation of a £3,000 uplift for band 3 prison officers? Should we not be giving these key workers a pay rise to recognise their vital work in keeping our country safe?
Where the hon. Lady is absolutely right is that retention matters, because having more experience in a prison leads it to be safer and more rehabilitative. However, it is disappointing that she did not note that last year there was a minimum increase in pay of 2.5%, and in fact some officers received up to 7.5%. That was much higher than wage inflation in the economy. We will continue to do everything possible to increase retention, including, by the way, among new officers, many of whom I met over the course of the summer, who would really benefit from increased mentoring on wings to improve morale and retention. We are absolutely committed to that very important agenda.
Judges and Legal Professionals: Afghanistan
I acknowledge the grave concerns of judges, legal professionals and beyond, both here and in Afghanistan, which are real and present. My Department continues to work urgently to support cross-Government efforts to provide safe passage for judges in Afghanistan, including by ensuring that individual cases that are brought to my attention are immediately lodged with relevant parts of the system.
We have seen some of the most talented legal professionals leave Afghanistan and come to the UK, and they should have a valuable place in the UK when they come here. What engagement has the Secretary of State had with the judiciary and legal professionals on supporting Afghan judges and legal professionals who will come to the UK or have already arrived?
I can reassure my hon. Friend that I am in daily communication with the judiciary and the wider legal profession—in fact, I am in daily communication with judiciary in Afghanistan—and I commend everyone for their efforts to support those judges and those who have dedicated themselves to building the rule of law and human rights in Afghanistan. As an example, the noble Lord Wolfson and I have been in regular contact with Mrs Justice McGowan, and we have discussed ways in which the legal community might provide support to help resettle Afghan legal professionals here in the UK.
After raising directly with the Government hundreds of separate cases covering thousands of people, I know of only two cases that have been resolved. What are the Government doing to help refugees from Afghanistan who are facing massive delays in the tribunal backlog?
Let me deal with the specific issue of judges and other lawyers in Afghanistan, because that is what I am directly involved with. Yesterday, the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme was announced. That provides a clear route to safety for judges, who are one of the groups to be prioritised under the scheme. Some judges have already been resettled here in the UK, and I will not rest until everyone who fits those important criteria and needs the support and safety of the rule of law is accommodated.
Last month, soon after the Foreign Secretary was found topping up his suntan instead of doing his job, Labour worked with the Bar Council to send to the Foreign Office a list of 126 Afghan judges who were at risk. We received no response, and our only update was seeing the Justice Secretary publicly celebrating the fact that just nine of them have been relocated to the UK. Can he confirm whether the number of Afghan judges relocated to the UK remains in single digits, what the number currently is, and how much higher he expects it could have been if the Foreign Secretary had not been missing in action?
I am sorry, but the right hon. Gentleman has not been in touch with me once about these matters directly. I have been working directly with the legal sector, the Bar Council and individual leading members of the profession, virtually daily to try to identify particular schemes and approaches we can take to assist judges, prosecutors and other lawyers in Afghanistan. I would love to see the list he talks about, because I can assure him that I will not rest until we do everything we can to help these dedicated professionals. I will, of course, keep the House updated on numbers as and when they are made available to me.
The Ministry of Justice and the Home Office are working in close collaboration to beat crime and reduce fear of reoffending. I am the personification of that collaboration. The refreshed integrated offender management strategy is an example of that collaboration, improving working between probation and local police, meaning we can more easily identify persistent offenders in any particular area and take action to stop them from committing neighbourhood crime.
I thank my hon. Friend for being the personification of collaboration between the police and the Department. Will he join me in thanking and congratulating my local police forces in Runnymede and Weybridge on the incredible preventive work they have done around offending? Does he agree with me that prevention is better than cure, and could he lay out some of the work they are doing in terms of pre-offending, not just reoffending?
My hon. Friend is quite right to point out that prevention is better than cure. One emphasis I have tried to bring to my mission as a joint Minister between the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice is that we should shift away from enforcement towards prevention as much as we possibly can. For example, he will know that we funded a series of violence reduction units across the country, working with young people well ahead of them moving towards offending or being involved in crime to make sure that they do not. We are also looking at innovative ways to deal with offenders leaving the secure estate to prevent them from offending, such as GPS tags. We are now currently tagging 100% of acquisitive criminals who leave prison in six police forces, soon to be expanded to a further 13, which is proving to be an enormous deterrent to their continuing offending, and is getting them back on to the straight and narrow.
My constituent had a successful career until addiction took control and she ended up in prison for crimes related to her addiction. She is out of prison, she is not reoffending and she is clean. She is getting her life back. Last year, however, she was raped. The rapist has been convicted, but she has been told that she is not entitled to criminal injury compensation because she has a prior conviction. Is that fair?
I am not aware of the specifics of that particular case. I am happy to meet or correspond with the hon. Lady if she wishes, but it is the case that people who have been convicted of a prior criminal offence are not entitled to compensation through the criminal injuries compensation scheme.
My hon. Friend will be aware that one of the best ways to reduce reoffending is education and work. When I speak to people in Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke, one of the things they want to see from people who are currently in prison who may be looking to leave is them not only gaining level 3 and level 4 qualifications, but getting out and working and earning money, whether that be through picking fruit and veg, or digging up roads. Can we see how that can be done through the Ministry of Justice?
My hon. Friend, in his usual forthright way, is quite right and cuts to the heart of the issue. We believe there is a simple formula for success after prison: giving people a job, a house and friend. If we think about it, those three pillars are the foundation of success for most of our lives and so it should be for prisoners, too.
Many people who reoffend are involved in substance misuse and, as a result of that, have a criminal conviction. If a public health approach is taken, that not only diverts people away from crime but gives people a new opportunity for a future. North Yorkshire police are working very hard on diversion. What is the Minister doing across Departments to make sure that a public health approach is taken?
The hon. Lady will recall that we were successful at the last spending round in securing, I think, £85 million to make sure that every single person who left the secure estate with a drug addiction was able to access treatment to help them back on to the straight and narrow. It is worth remembering what a public health approach means. Although there are therapeutic and often medical treatments and services that should be offered to offenders to help them with regard to their offending, at the same time we have to bear in mind that enforcement counts, too. Making sure that we treat them with rigour and discipline and that there is consequence for their non-compliance with the conditions that we put on them post-release from prison is critical to getting the psychology right. We are seeing this, for example, with our GPS tagging. In particular, when we expand the use of sobriety tags to those prisoners who are leaving the secure estate who have had an alcohol problem before, we hope to see that writ large.
The Government recognise the deep distress that is caused when a pet is stolen, and the pet theft taskforce carried out a thorough investigation of this issue. Its excellent report, published earlier this month, contains a comprehensive set of recommendations that will allow us to tackle this issue head on.
As a fellow animal lover, Mr Speaker, I know that you, like me, will appreciate the extreme distress that the theft of a much loved family pet can cause, particularly with over 2,000 pet dogs reported as having been stolen last year. These measures cannot come soon enough, so can the Justice Secretary confirm how soon they will be brought forward to tackle pet theft?
I reassure my hon. Friend that we are already working on the new proposed offence of pet abduction and that work is already under way with many of the other recommendations stemming from the report, such as the review of microchipping and improvements in the recording of these offences. This will continue and I remind the House that the recommendation of the pet abduction offence is leagues better than the weak amendment proposed by Labour.
I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for his work on bringing criminals to book with the much needed criminal offence of pet theft. Does he agree that it is important that the sentence for this offence, when determined, will reflect the unique emotional suffering caused by the theft of a beloved pet, and will he ensure that that is reflected?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The use of the term “abduction” is a crucial reflection of the fact that these are sentient beings; they are not mere chattels or goods. The emotional effect both on the pets and their owners has to be taken into account. I think there is a read-across to animal cruelty and the important reforms that we made recently in increasing maximum sentences.
I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for his response and for his recent visit to our Crown court in Lincoln castle, the magistrates court in the city and Her Majesty’s prison Lincoln, none of which are up for sale, Mr Speaker, but the judge’s lodgings are, if you are interested. Pets are not just animals; they are often members of families, and many of my constituents in Lincoln would welcome changes to ensure that we protect our pets to the highest possible degree. As well as strengthening prosecution powers through the pet abduction offence and expanding pet ownership databases, does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that we must educate prospective owners to buy pets only from reputable breeders and potentially encompass farm animals in the same legislation?
My hon. Friend hits the nail on the head. The idea that buying an animal by the side of the road or in a garage forecourt for cash is somehow legitimate trade is clearly wrong. I am grateful to colleagues at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs for doing important work on promoting safer purchasing through the “Petfished” campaign. We will build on that in the way in which we identify and track cases better, improve the recording of keepership data and deal with through-the-loophole breeders, who are frankly responsible for a lot of cruelty and suffering.
I rarely congratulate the Justice Secretary, but I do on this issue because he has eventually agreed with Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition about making pet theft a specific offence. On a serious note, I congratulate all the campaigners on the issue, particularly John Cooper, QC, who has done an awful lot of work on it.
The Justice Secretary knows that when the shadow Justice Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy), tabled his amendment to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, the Tories rejected the idea of a specific offence time and again; I think I am right in saying that the Justice Secretary’s argument was that the Theft Act 1968 was sufficient. The taskforce has now reported, but I am not clear on when we expect the legislation to take effect. When can we expect those who are alleged to have stolen pets to face the criminal courts?
I am always grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s words of wisdom, but I will just correct him in this respect: there was a general agreement that the use of theft legislation to deal with what were more than goods and chattels just was not an adequate way to reflect not just the taking of a pet, but the suffering of the pet and of the owner. That is why abduction is a much better read-across, as he knows from the matter of child abduction, for example.
I take issue with the hon. Gentleman on the point and I challenge him and the Opposition: if the matter is brought forward in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which they voted against again and again, will they now support it?
Anti-competitive Behaviour: Small Businesses
The Government are currently consulting on a range of reforms to competition and policy in order to more effectively and swiftly address anti-competitive behaviour. The consultation includes many of the recommendations that my hon. Friend made in his excellent report. As part of it, we welcome suggestions from small businesses about how the system can be improved.
The Secretary of State understands that anti-competitive behaviour is just as likely among small firms as among big ones. The effects are terrible: fast-growing small firms that are future world beaters get throttled by slightly bigger incumbents, levelling up is slower and less likely because competition and productivity are much lower outside London, and residents are left with less choice and more vulnerability to rip-offs. Does he agree that the justice system plays a central role in tackling the problem and ensuring that small firms have some kind of redress? Will he therefore look closely at the proposal in my Government-commissioned report for a new tier of local county competition courts?
I will be as brief as I can, Mr Speaker. We have read my hon. Friend’s paper with great interest. With respect, I do not think that the way forward is to create a further tier of specialist courts. However, there is much that can be done with colleagues in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to make sure that the overall structure of the competition mechanism is reformed and improved. His point about access to justice is absolutely right: it should apply to small and medium-sized enterprises as much as to individuals.
The Rule of Law
Naturally, I do not disclose the details of my private conversations with Cabinet colleagues, but they and everybody else should be in no doubt that I am, and will continue to be, a very active Lord Chancellor in supporting the rule of law. I use the authority of my office to advise, to warn and to encourage. I am absolutely committed, under the oath I took, to my constitutional duty to respect the rule of law.
The Secretary of State will no doubt agree that for any Government committed to the rule of law, respect for international law is as important as respect for domestic law. Will he therefore join me in condemning suggestions by the Home Secretary that she is prepared to break international refugee conventions and turn away boats in the channel? Will he meet her to stress how damaging that action would be to the United Kingdom’s international reputation and credibility?
I assure the hon. Gentleman that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has taken the fullest and most comprehensive advice on these matters. There is an immediate challenge: we face the appalling exploitation of people by gangmasters and traffickers across the English channel every day. It is absolutely right that she and Home Office colleagues explore every possible lawful avenue to deal with that. That is what this Government are committed to, and there is no question that her actions would come close to breaking international law.
Thank you very much, Mr Speaker.
In the middle of a pandemic, the Secretary of State’s Government are prioritising attacking the Human Rights Act and judicial review, disenfranchising millions of voters with the Elections Bill on voter ID, and, now, threatening to break international law to make it harder for asylum seekers, including those from Afghanistan, to find sanctuary in Britain. The new president of the Law Society recently warned that those measures put respect for the rule of law in jeopardy in the UK. What does the Secretary of State say to the president of the Law Society?
I think the right hon. Gentleman will find that, across the piece, the commentary that has followed my speech and the introduction of the Judicial Review and Courts Bill has reflected the fact that this is a measured and incremental approach to constitutional reform, as, I am sure, will be the work on the independent review of the Human Rights Act. The idea that somehow I am the most dangerous Lord Chancellor in history is risible. [Laughter.]
None of this is funny. This Government’s disregard for the rule of law is wide-ranging, as we have heard. They are reducing access to justice, planning, for instance, to remove Cart judicial reviews; the Nationality and Borders Bill simply ignores the refugee convention, while the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill strips away legal certainty; and the Secretary of State’s own comments to me in this place on 18 May demonstrated his disregard for our international obligations. Can he match my necessarily shortened list with examples that demonstrate the opposite?
I am afraid that that is emblematic of the problem that we are facing. Dressing up legitimate political debate as somehow a direct criticism of our adherence to the rule of law is, I am afraid, a regular trick of the left, and I am not going to fall for that sanctimonious list of nonsense. This Government are absolutely committed to the rule of law across our United Kingdom.
The Nationality and Borders Bill also lengthens the time for which those seeking asylum must wait for a decision, while shortening the time that they have in which to appeal. As we have heard, 22 female judges are trapped in Afghanistan, and neither yesterday nor today have we heard any firm plans to get them out. If they manage somehow to make it here without our assistance, how surprised does the Secretary of State think they will be to discover the complete disregard for them and for the rule of law in that Bill?
Again, the hon. Lady is way off the mark. The idea that there is not a clear plan was plainly negatived by yesterday’s statement from the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins). We have a very clear plan for Afghan judges. If the Scottish National party wishes to conduct a proper dialogue and a proper debate, I shall be interested to hear it; thus far, I do not hear it.
Prisoners Released on Licence and Victims’ Families
It is for the probation service, through its victim liaison officers, rather than the Parole Board to notify victims of upcoming parole reviews and to ensure that they are able to exercise their statutory rights to make a victim personal statement or request licence conditions. It is understandably distressing when victims are told of an offender’s release, and we are therefore investing heavily in the probation service and its designated professional staff to give them further support.
My constituent Michael McGrath is battling for justice for his family. His sister Rachel McGrath was murdered in a brutal stranger attack by Nicholas Burton in 1997. The trial judge described Burton as merciless and manipulative, and stated that no Home Secretary—as the arrangement was at the time—would ever be likely to allow his release. Rachel’s elderly parents were recently told that Burton would walk free next year. They have not even been able to make a victim statement, and they believe that correct procedure has not been followed. Will the Secretary of State please agree to a ministerial meeting with the family to help to ensure that they have all the information they need, and that their voice is heard and respected?
I thank the right hon. Lady for raising that extremely sensitive, distressing and frankly appalling case. Yes, of course I would be delighted to meet the family. May I also make a general point? We—and, in fairness, I think that this applies across all parties—are very keen for victims to be not spectators but participants in these matters, so their voice shall be heard, and we will continue to do everything possible to strengthen that voice.
Human Rights Act Review
The Government have established the independent Human Rights Act review to examine the framework of that Act, how it is operating in practice and whether any change is required. The review is considering the approach taken by our domestic courts to the jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights, and it will also examine whether the HRA currently strikes the correct balance between the roles of the courts, the Government and Parliament. It will report back later this year.
I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for that answer and welcome this review, as I think we all do on our side of the Chamber. However, will he commit to an open consultation on any proposed reforms resulting from the independent review of the Human Rights Act?
May I take this opportunity to welcome the Minister of State, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for South East Cambridgeshire (Lucy Frazer), back to her place in the Ministry of Justice? We are grateful to see her back.
Our pets are valuable members of our families, and we rely on their companionship daily. This has been especially true throughout the pandemic. The reported rise in pet thefts throughout this time has being truly shocking, and the Government are not prepared to ignore the growing concern about this issue. The pet theft taskforce published its report this month, and it contains a comprehensive set of recommendations that would allow us to tackle this issue. Chief among them is the creation of a new offence of pet abduction. I agree wholeheartedly that this is the right course of action because it recognises that pets are more than mere property and distinguishes them from inanimate objects that can be replaced. The new offence also acknowledges that when the pet is stolen, there are two victims, not one. We will look to introduce the new offence when parliamentary time allows.
Does the Secretary of State believe that it is safe or appropriate for prison officers—the invisible emergency service—who by definition deal with the most violent and dangerous criminals across the UK, to be expected to do so up to the age of 68, which is their retirement age? Does he not agree that this completely unrealistic retirement age has negatively impacted on retention and recruitment rates?
The hon. Lady is right to raise the retirement age issue. Indeed, the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk), rightly pointed out in answer to an earlier question that there had been two attempts in recent years to resolve this issue. No agreement was reached with the Prison Officers Association, but I very much hope that any future discussions will result in some agreement. We continue to look at this issue, and I want to put on record my warm tribute to the prison service and to the much hidden and misunderstood work of jailcraft that prison officers do, day in and day out, in England and Wales, and indeed in Scotland.
My hon. Friend raises a critical point, and we agree, which is why we have invested £100 million in gate security to ensure, for example, that body scanners can be installed to allow concealed items to be detected, that there is money for counter-corruption, and that rehabilitation and treatment can take place in jail. A time when our jails are completely drug free is something that we aspire to, and we are making important progress.
At the last Justice questions, I raised the issue of the wrongful prosecution and conviction of British citizens under schedule 22 to the Coronavirus Act 2020, an issue that has been publicised by Big Brother Watch, Fair Trials, and The Guardian newspaper. Sadly, the Minister blamed the Crown Prosecution Service and did not promise to correct this injustice, and more people might have been wrongly convicted since then. That said, following our intervention, the Government have expired the schedule. I am grateful for that, but can the Lord Chancellor tell us what action he is taking to quash all the illegal convictions?
With respect to the hon. Gentleman, this is not a question of our blaming the Crown Prosecution Service. There is a constitutional principle here. The Crown Prosecution Service is independent, and the Law Officers are responsible for the superintendence of that service. I am sure that his colleague the shadow Solicitor General will be able to ask the Law Officers these questions in the next few days.
My right hon. Friend will appreciate that there are ongoing proceedings, including in the civil courts, and the extradition proceedings may be subject to further appeals, so it would not be right for me to comment directly on that case. The SFO is superintended by the Law Officers. However, I undertake to talk to him about the general issues of concern that he properly raises.
I am always keen, as the hon. Gentleman knows, to make sure that the law in England and Wales is consistent. I will, of course, look carefully at that particular issue. The report is welcome as we particularly looked at a read-across to scrap metal and the way in which we banned cash payments there. The evidence is emerging, and we are gathering it as quickly as possible. We will do everything we can, consistent with an appropriate approach, to deal with this type of illegitimate trade in defenceless animals.
I am extremely sorry to hear about the event in my hon. Friend’s constituency, and I am pleased that he has raised it on the Floor of the House. He will know that, for the last two years, we have made dismantling the county lines business model a key priority of our work between the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice. He will be pleased to know that, following significant investment in the key exporting forces of London, the west midlands and Liverpool—Merseyside police—we have made significant progress. We reckon that we have managed to dismantle about a third of the county lines, but there is still significant work to do. He will be pleased to know that some counties, such as Essex and Norfolk, are showing significant success, but there is still a lot more to do to overcome this pernicious and particularly unpleasant business model that focuses on exploiting young and vulnerable people as part of its way of making money. I assure him that we will not stint over the coming years in trying to eradicate county lines from our country.
The hon. Lady raises a case that shocks and concerns us all. I would be more than happy to talk to her directly about these issues. As she knows, the law of criminal damage is being reformed in other respects in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, but I want to make sure that we reflect the often devastating consequences of thoughtless and criminal acts of damage against vital pieces of life-saving equipment such as life belts.
I am extremely sorry to hear of the experience hon. Friend’s constituent has undergone. I can confirm that this area is a priority in court recovery from covid. For example, domestic violence protection orders are being prioritised. In cases where there is a particular vulnerability, the judiciary, in deciding which cases to list, give that careful consideration. As I laid out in answer to the very first question, significant additional resources have gone into the justice system, which have resulted in higher levels of public family law disposals—they are significantly higher this year than last. We are using remote hearing technology and getting extra sitting days organised, for exactly the reasons he mentioned; hearing awful cases such as the one he described remains a significant priority.
As I said to the House earlier, the Afghan relocations and assistance policy scheme covered the initial flights out. We have now extended and created a new scheme yesterday, which will cover and make a priority those particular judges. The hon. Gentleman knows that the issues in the country are complex and that colleagues across Government are working out ways in which we can facilitate safe passage, but I assure him that everybody who fits that category will get the warmest of welcomes in this country and that that work goes on daily. [Interruption.] I do not know how many times I can explain this: there is a clear plan and we are getting on with it.
Prison officers and staff have done an amazing, excellent job of keeping prisoners safe during the pandemic, with much lower infection rates in jails than had been feared. That has mainly been achieved by keeping prisoners locked in their cells, but, obviously, we now need to move beyond that so that they can access education, work and other rehabilitation programmes. So will the Minister tell the House what progress has been made on rolling out vaccines in prisons, which would allow this vital work to resume?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is absolutely right to pay tribute, and let me tell him why. At the beginning of this pandemic there was a prediction that 2,700 prisoners would die in English jails, but the actual figure is under 130. Although every one of those is a tragedy, this is a powerful tribute to the work that those staff did. He makes an important point about vaccination. Every prisoner has been offered a vaccination, although there are some decline rates, which are higher in London, of up to 50%. Every effort is being made to encourage prisoners to get vaccinated, because we could then open up the regime.
The hon. Lady makes an important point, because if we want to cut crime, we have to reduce reoffending. That means we have to get people who come out of prison a job, they need to get a home and if they are on drugs, they need to get off drugs. This is absolutely what we are doing and in July we launched our £20 million scheme to provide temporary accommodation for prison leavers at risk of homelessness in five probation regions. We are also working closely with the Department for Work and Pensions to ensure that we have work coaches in prison to get people jobs.
Last year, the expert Family Solutions Group produced a hard-hitting report called “What about me?”, which focuses on the 280,000 children each year who experience their parents separating. With the divorce Act fast approaching and family courts increasingly stretched, will my right hon. and learned Friend meet me to discuss ideas and some of the report’s identified policy gaps on separating families?
My hon. Friend has considerable professional experience as a family lawyer of distinction, and I am more than happy to speak to her. It sounds as if that report complements the family harm report that was published earlier this year and the excellent work that is being done by senior judiciary in the family division to minimise the fight when it comes to the future of our children.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for raising the Law Commission report. I will write to him to clarify the date by which the commission will publish that clearly important piece of work. There is a shared will throughout the House to take action wherever it is appropriate, and the hon. Member can rest assured that the Government will not slack when it comes to the protection of women and other vulnerable people.
I know, Mr Speaker, that you will be exercised by the Public Service Pensions and Judicial Offices Bill that is currently going through the other place, and particularly by clause 103, which will raise the retirement age of magistrates from 70 to 75, thus fulfilling the ambition behind the private Member’s Bill that I introduced in the previous Session. While we wait for that legislation to go through, what other measures is my right hon. and learned Friend taking to get through the backlog of cases in courts, particularly through online cases?
My hon. Friend was himself a practitioner of many years’ standing. I assure him that we are using every tool available—including remote hearings, bringing back judges who have recently retired and, indeed, harnessing the entire legal profession—to deal with the number of cases before the courts. The restriction on sitting days has been lifted and colleagues in Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service are working tirelessly to deal with the case load.
May I return to the case of the female Afghan judges, which I raised yesterday with the Lord Chancellor’s Home Office colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins)? A female former Afghan judge who escaped two assassination attempts by the Taliban and is now a British citizen contacted me at the weekend to explain the very real and immediate danger that her colleagues face, particularly from dangerous criminals and terrorists who have been released from prison. I am bringing her into Parliament at 5 pm this evening to meet informally with the Justice Committee; will the Lord Chancellor, or perhaps one of his junior colleagues, come to that meeting and meet this lady to hear at first hand how desperate the situation really is?
I will of course make sure that my diary is adjusted so that I can do that. The hon. and learned Lady can rest assured that I am getting emails from her colleagues directly to my parliamentary account. These are harrowing tales of harrowing experiences, which is why I meant what I said in my answers earlier. I am very grateful to the hon. and learned Lady.
Yes, Mr Speaker.
In oral questions, the whole House expressed tremendous concern about the situation that faces Afghan judges. In response to my question earlier, the Secretary of State for Justice said that he has not been written to by me once about judges in Afghanistan, in reference to my role as shadow Secretary of State for Justice. With all graciousness, I ask the Secretary of State to correct the record: I wrote to him on 16 August—I have the letter in front of me and it is available online—and he replied to me on 25 August.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I am happy to correct the record and, of course, to apologise to the right hon. Gentleman. I remind him that I am more than happy to speak directly to him. He will know that the urgency of this situation means that phone calls and texts are absolutely acceptable, and I would be more than happy to discuss the matter with him in that way. As you know, Mr Speaker, this has been a very busy time, and I hope the House will forgive me if on this occasion I got it wrong. I do apologise to the right hon. Gentleman.