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.