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Topical Questions

Volume 711: debated on Tuesday 22 March 2022

Last week, I went to The Hague to offer British assistance to the International Criminal Court in bringing those responsible for war crimes in Ukraine to justice. Russian commanders carrying out war crimes should know that they cannot act with impunity and that, like Karadžić and Charles Taylor before them, their actions risk landing them in a jail cell. I also set out proposals to tackle strategic lawsuits against public participation—SLAPPs—to stop oligarchs using our libel laws to muzzle journalists and academics.

My constituency has strong links to Ukraine. Can my right hon. Friend reassure my constituents that this Government will do everything to support the investigation of war crimes potentially committed in Ukraine?

We are looking at a package of measures including financial assistance and also technical assistance, which is crucial to the preservation of evidence. The kinds of things I am analysing with colleagues across Whitehall include specialist IT capabilities and other expert areas such as police and military analysis—all the things that the ICC will need.

Can I bring the Minister on to a more domestic issue? Victims of domestic abuse and other serious crimes are more often than not denied justice due to the broken criminal justice system. Legal aid provides a lifeline to those who need it most, but the system is on its knees due to chronic underfunding. Sir Christopher Bellamy QC recommended a minimum fee increase not as an opening bid but as a necessary first step to nurse the legal aid system back to health. How will the Minister stop the continuing haemorrhage of criminal solicitors and barristers from the workforce in the meantime, so that further victims are not denied access to justice?

We have set out in detail our response to the Bellamy review, and indeed we matched the Bellamy recommendations on the quantum of investment and on the 15% uplift for fees. I think it was only last week that he backed those plans pretty much wholeheartedly, and I hope he still does.

Litigation or the threat of litigation should not be used to intimidate or to silence things that are in the public interest. I welcome what my right hon. Friend said last week about SLAPPs. Can he reassure me, my constituents, journalists across the country and the wider public that he will do whatever it takes to support the freedom of the press and freedom of speech more widely?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and we have set out our proposals on SLAPPs. I also want to bring his attention to the submission that we had from the media group that involves the i, The Times, Associated Newspapers, The Daily Telegraph and others, which talks about the specific proposals we have put forward in our Bill of Rights to strengthen and reinforce freedom of expression and media rights as critically important, alongside the other work we are doing. I hope that the Labour party will support it.

T2. In December, my constituent Daphne Franks and I delivered a paper to the Ministry of Justice setting out proposals to end predatory marriage, but so far nothing has been done, mainly because the review of wills has been paused by the Law Commission. Given that the elderly and vulnerable are still being targeted every day, may I ask the Secretary of State whether he will now step in and support the legislative changes set out in our proposal so that we can finally bring this appalling abuse to an end? (906229)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising this issue in the House. I am happy to have a conversation and a meeting with him to discuss his proposals in greater detail. It is important to recognise that in the marriage space we are awaiting the outcome of the Law Commission’s review, which is expected in July. Like other Ministers in the Department, I will want to have a thorough look at all these matters in the round.

T4. Today would have been Harry Dunn’s 21st birthday. Instead, his twin brother Niall faces this fabulous milestone alone and there is still no justice for Harry’s family from the tragic killing of him by an American citizen who was driving on the wrong side of the road. I know that the hearts of colleagues from across the House go out to Harry Dunn, his whole family and all his friends, particularly his brother. Will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, who has done so much to try to help, give the House an update on what is being done to deliver justice for Harry? (906231)

So that the House is aware, let me say that this is sub judice, so please be cautious in your answer, as I would expect that you would be.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, I will be mindful of what you say. First, let me thank and pay tribute to my right hon. Friend, who has championed the Dunn family and the memory of Harry in the most remarkable way. Of course my heart goes out to Tim, Charlotte, Bruce, Tracey and all the family right now. Indeed, I was thinking about Tracey and Charlotte in particular as we prepare for Mother’s day this week. I can tell my right hon. Friend, without tripping up in the way that Mr Speaker described, that the whole Government and I wholeheartedly support the Foreign Secretary’s ongoing efforts to secure a virtual trial so that we can see justice done for Harry and his family.

T6.   Will the Secretary of State confirm clearly, for the record, that the Government will not make changes to the Human Rights Act without legislative consent from the devolved institutions? (906234)

The hon. Gentleman will know, because I have said it in the House on a number of occasions, that it would be inappropriate to consider the application of the Sewel convention until we have the text of the Bill of Rights, but he will not have to wait too much longer for that.

T5. Will my right hon. Friend look again at whether there are any opportunities to support grandchildren to have better access to their grandparents following a divorce or bereavement? (906233)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this issue. The Government understand the important role that grandparents often play in children’s lives—I can very much relate to that through my own experiences growing up—and the stability they can provide, particularly during times of divorce, separation or bereavement. I know that she had a productive meeting with my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister recently. This matter is under active consideration at pace and we will revert to her as quickly as possible.

T8. One of my constituents, after leaving a near two-decade-long abusive relationship, reported an assault to the police, but she was then told that the statute of limitations on her case had run out, as it was not processed in time, which means that she will never see justice. What steps will the Minister take to reform the statute of limitations process for victims of assault in abusive relationships? (906236)

I hope that the House will understand that I must not comment on an individual case, but for offences that are triable either way—assault and occasioning actual bodily harm—or those that are indictable only, there are no such time limits. One category of offence—common assault charges—does have the traditional six-month time limit. Exactly the situation the hon. Lady has described is what we are seeking to change for the better through the police Bill. We are removing that six-month time limit—extending it to two years—so that cases of the sort she describes will not hit that legal barrier to securing justice for victims.

T7. I commend my right hon. Friend the Minister for the steps he has taken recently to publicise community payback to tackle antisocial behaviour. In Darlington, antisocial behaviour involving off-road bikes and quad bikes causes tremendous trouble; will the Minister outline what steps he will take to use community payback to tackle that? (906235)

I am pleased that my hon. Friend recognises that dozens of teams of offenders are fanning out across England and Wales and doing fantastic work, paying back into their community by improving the environment. My hon. Friend has been a persistent campaigner on the antisocial behaviour that quad bikes bring to his constituency and I know he will have conversations with his local police and crime commissioner about what the police can do to catch the individuals responsible. When they do catch them, it is absolutely appropriate that they pay back into the community through the kind of work that we now see on a daily basis. It might also be appropriate to GPS tag offenders so that we know where they are moving at speed off-road.

If, as the Secretary of State said earlier, he is concerned about the oppressive use of litigation costs in SLAPP cases, will he look into the same problems in respect of media cases? Will he consider introducing—perhaps in his Bill of Rights—the type of low-cost arbitration recommended by the Leveson inquiry?

I recognise the issue that the hon. Gentleman wants to deal with but we are not going to rake over the old coals of that debate.

My right hon. Friend the Minister recently met me and my constituent Donna Mooney to discuss imprisonment for public protection sentences. Will he update the House on the progress of his thoughts on the matter and whether he plans to bring forward any plans for reform?

I had a useful and informative meeting with my hon. Friend and his constituent. As he knows, we have in place an action plan for IPP sentences that we are prosecuting with, I hope, some verve and energy to drive down the numbers. My hon. Friend will know that the Justice Committee held an inquiry into IPP sentences; we await its conclusions before we look at the next steps.

My constituent Huw Davies is struggling to regain control of a home that he has owned for many years and is wondering when there will be tougher action to prevent lasting powers of attorney from being taken out fraudulently. Will Ministers set out what they are doing to toughen up the law and to toughen up the enforcement activity in respect of lasting powers of attorney?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising an issue of which we are mindful. He will know that we are soon to embark on a process to reform lasting powers of attorney, to make sure that all the processes are fit for the modern world, that incidents of abuse and fraud are tackled robustly and that all the right checks and mechanisms are there.

I welcome the work that my hon. Friend the Minister has been doing to recruit more magistrates and the changes to the retirement age to enable senior magistrates to sit for longer. Will he tell us about the plans to introduce powers to keep more cases in the magistrates court and when he expects those powers to come into effect?

My hon. Friend is, of course, a serving magistrate and speaks with great authority on these matters. As he knows, the Judicial Review and Courts Bill, which contains key parts of those powers, has not yet received Royal Assent. On my hon. Friend’s other point, I can confirm that the Public Service Pensions and Judicial Offices Bill recently received Royal Assent. The Public Service Pensions and Judicial Offices Act 2022 raises the statutory mandatory retirement age to 75. As my hon. Friend says, that is an important measure to ensure that we maximise the number of people in our judicial labour force.

Does not Mariupol alone demand that we go even further on sanctions in relation to Russia? Could we not sanction all the Russian banks, rather than just 60% of them? Should we not be taking action against the oil and gas companies? Should we not be removing tier 1 visas from people in the UK who have them and have not yet condemned the war in Ukraine? Should we not be putting more pressure on companies—such as Infosys in India—that have big investments in Russia? Should we not make sure that all the family members and apparatchiks are also sanctioned?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that we should continually challenge ourselves. The most important thing, though, is that we are focused on and targeted at those either with direct links into the Kremlin or who fund or indirectly fund, to put the squeeze on Putin’s war machine.

On 30 March last year, my constituent Tim Dack sadly passed away from covid-19. Before he passed away, he woke up from his coma and he proposed to his partner; she was then doubly saddened to find out that she could not be listed as his partner on his death certificate, despite the fact that they had lived together for multiple years. My understanding is that there are uncommenced provisions in the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 that would allow such listing to happen. Might one of my Front-Bench colleagues be able to enlighten me on when those changes will be brought forward?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that difficult and tragic constituency case. I would be grateful if he took the opportunity to meet me to discuss it in more detail, so that I can understand the circumstances and provide a full response.

Last week, I received an email from the Gwent Citizen Panel about the consultation on the Government proposals to scrap the Human Rights Act 1998. The Government produced a consultation on 14 December but did not produce an easy-read version, nor any other versions, such as one in British Sign Language, an audio version or one in Makaton. Why was that?

I will look at the various variations the hon. Lady has referred to; I will make sure to get her an answer by correspondence within the week.

Are the Secretary of State and the Minister for prisons aware of the shocking report out this morning by Ofsted and Her Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons, which describes a terrible level of reading ability in prisons and a lack of progress over recent years? What plans do the Government have to put in place the recommendations of the 2016 Coates report and to ensure accountability, so that prison governors understand the vital nature of teaching all prisoners to read? Without that skill, there can be no serious rehabilitation.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his attention to this issue and wider issues of education within the prison system. We absolutely understand the criticisms made in the report. I hope we have pre-empted some of the report’s observations through the “Prisons Strategy” White Paper, which shows the Government’s determination to cut reoffending through rehabilitation. The White Paper includes, for example, the development of personal learning plans for prisoners and the introduction of new prison key performance indicators in English and maths, so that we can hold prisons to account for the outcomes they achieve for prisoners.

On this day five years ago, our lovely friend, the policeman Keith, was tragically killed—it haunts us all.

Can I ask a question about a real crisis occurring in the criminal justice system—the failure to attract the right number of young recruits into criminal law? Civil law and commercial law are so well paid that we cannot attract young men and women into criminal law. It is a real crisis. What is the Secretary of State going to do about it?

I thank the hon. Gentleman. He is right to say that there are difficulties in this area. If he reads our response to the Bellamy review, he will see that there are a number of ways that we want to address the issue, including by increasing fees and breaking down some of the barriers, for example through the promotion of CILEX, so that we can encourage more non-graduate routes into the profession. That will help with not just the volume but the diversity of practitioners.