Skip to main content

Topical Questions

Volume 720: debated on Tuesday 18 October 2022

My immediate priority on becoming Justice Secretary was to end the disruptive strike action that was delaying justice in our criminal courts. I am pleased that the Criminal Bar Association voted to agree a new legal aid deal and its members returned to work last week.

The Government have reset a constructive relationship with barristers and we have agreed to work together to bring down court backlogs, so that victims can get the timely justice they deserve. We have also announced more plans for more prison leavers to be fitted with GPS tags, so that we can keep a close eye on them to help deter reoffending, reduce crime and, importantly, keep our citizens and communities safe.

Ten years since the abolition of the sentence of imprisonment for public protection, nearly 3,000 people are still in prison serving indeterminate sentences. Last month, the Justice Committee released a report calling the sentence “irredeemably flawed”, highlighting the severe psychological harm it causes and its adverse impact on rehabilitation. Will the Secretary of State act on the report’s recommendation to bring in legislation to resentence prisoners subject to IPP sentences?

As the hon. Lady rightly says, that report has been published. We are considering it and we will respond in due course.

T3.   I was pleased by my right hon. Friend’s announcement at the party conference that more criminals will be closely monitored through GPS tagging. Can he assure me that the funding for that is available, so that my constituents can have the confidence that they will be safer on their streets? (901706)

Yes, absolutely. I am looking forward to being able to roll out up to 8,000 new tags as part of the scheme we have announced. The scheme is funded and will be happening. It is important to stress that it is on top of current prison leavers, and it will give extra protection and confidence to communities because we will know what the people who are tagged are doing and where they are. It adds to community safety and gives a sense of safety to everyone.

T2. Recent statistics show the backlog in the Crown court has increased to more than 61,000 cases. Given our collective experience during covid and the necessity of non-face-to-face meetings, and how valuable the work done during such difficult times was, will the Justice Secretary update the House on what discussions have taken place on more use of virtual proceedings, and on a full and sustained funding package to modernise the courts estate? Does he agree that this needs to be implemented urgently, with Scotland receiving its full Barnett consequentials? (901705)

The court backlog is an important issue. As part of the deal done with the Criminal Bar Association, we are looking at giving better funding for cross-examination under section 28 of the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999 for victims of serious sexual violence, but the hon. Gentleman will know that the Government have put in place a catalogue of measures to tackle the backlog in the Crown court. We want to get on top of the backlog; we were getting on top of it until the Bar strike took place, and thanks to the deal that has been struck, we are now optimistic that it will start to come down.

T5. Everyone is scratching their head about how to send illegal migrants back across the channel, but every time we try something, it is trumped by human rights lawyers. Clearly something must be done. Is there anything in the Human Rights Act 1998 or the convention on refugees to stop us sending illegal migrants straight back to our sovereign military base in Cyprus, which we own? They do not need to be locked up; they can just be sent back to where they come from. (901708)

We believe that our proposals to process people in Rwanda are compliant with not only the UN convention on refugees, but the European convention on human rights. We believe that our proposals are within not just international law but national law. There is nothing in those laws that prevent us from carrying out the policy we are proposing.

T4.   A teenage girl in my constituency was sexually assaulted by two boys from her school. The police took a long time to investigate, but eventually the file was passed to the Crown Prosecution Service. The CPS has stated that there was sufficient evidence to show that the young woman was physically and sexually assaulted by the two youths; however, it went on to state that despite this evidence it would be dropping the case because it would prejudice further the two youths in future. Is this justice? What message does it send to women and girls across England and Wales? (901707)

I will be happy to look into that case. More broadly, the hon. Lady highlights the vital importance of the police and the CPS working closely together when they develop case files to go forward to the courts. That is the work we are doing in Operation Soteria. It is already resulting in more charges and more convictions for rape and serious sexual assault.

T7. I very much welcome the Department for Work and Pensions having a dedicated team in my constituency to ensure that ex-offenders find gainful employment. May I seek assurances from the Ministry of Justice that that collaborative work to rehabilitate ex-offenders will continue? (901710)

I thank my hon. Friend for that question, to which the short answer is yes, it absolutely will. It is a priority for this Government to increase the proportion of prison leavers in sustainable employment. We work closely with DWP to do that via its network of prison work coaches. We are also committed to working with the Department to improve access to universal credit.

T6. Before shelving the Bill of Rights, the Justice Secretary’s predecessor, the right hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Dominic Raab), attempted to exclude the Government from the protections on free speech. Does the current Justice Secretary agree that if the Bill is to return in some form at a later date, the Government should not seek to impose on others rules that they are not willing to accept on themselves? (901709)

We will always make sure that we are working within the rule of law, including internationally. That is vital to us. We are committed to bringing forward proposals that work, that protect freedom of speech, and that ensure we deal with some of the egregious attempts at prosecution and shutting down debate being made by ne’er do wells around the world.

T9. It is becoming pretty clear that we cannot get a grip on the small boats crisis and deliver significant reform of our asylum system without reforming the Human Rights Act. What is the Government’s plan? (901712)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. It is the Government’s position that we can tackle that significant problem within the current law. He will be aware that two judicial reviews are pending, but we are committed to the European convention on human rights and to the UN refugee convention. We believe that our proposals are within the law and that no court has said otherwise.

T8. In recent weeks, my constituency has endured a spate of drugs and knife crime, which has resulted in the tragic loss of young lives. We must get more policing and preventive resources for Slough. Given the current justice backlogs, caused by Conservative Governments closing half of all our courts in England and Wales since 2010, what reassurances can the Secretary of State give to victims and their families that they will not have to wait up to the current unacceptable average of four years to get their day in court? (901711)

As we said earlier, getting on top of that core backlog, which has obviously gone up as a result of pressures, is an absolutely key piece of work for us. People sometimes forget that we have lost almost a couple of years through covid and through the Bar strike this year. It is also about making sure that communities are safe through things such as the tagging scheme that we are rolling out, to ensure that people have confidence in their communities as well.

T10.   Stoke-on-Trent has been blighted by drugs recently, particularly monkey dust, which is ruining lives. I am calling for monkey dust to be reclassified as a class A drug. Will my hon. Friend update the House on what action the Government are taking to increase the penalties for people who trade in those horrific drugs? (901713)

My hon. Friend is completely right to highlight the harm and the horrendous impacts of drug dealing in his constituency. There are already significant penalties for supplying that drug—as a class B drug, the maximum penalty is four years in prison—but the Government always keep such matters under review.

It is not just the criminal courts that are seeing backlogs; the probate registry service and the divorce courts are also causing problems. One constituent came to my surgery last week. She is still living with her husband but her divorce case has been passed to Suffolk, where people cannot understand how she could still be living in the same house as him while trying to divorce—but that is the reality of the London housing situation. What action is the Minister taking to make sure that the pace of dealing with such cases increases?

The Government have invested £324 million over the next three years to bring down the backlog in the family courts. The hon. Lady is right to mention the probate court as well. Obtaining grants of probate has a satisfaction rating of about 90%, but there are some serious delays with that other 10%. When people apply online and everything is order, probate is swiftly dealt with, but there are difficulties with some of the other 10% of cases. We are working on that at speed.

Colin Pitchfork is a double child killer and rapist who came in front of the Parole Board. My predecessor referred the case back to the Parole Board to be reviewed, but Colin Pitchfork was then released and had his licence revoked again after worrying behaviour around young women. The Government committed to a root-and-branch review of the parole system in March. Will the Minister update the House on progress on that, so that such cases never happen again?

The public rightly want to know how that was allowed to happen, which is the impetus for our root-and-branch reform of the Parole Board. It now falls to the Parole Board to review Pitchfork’s detention. I assure my hon. Friend that it is very much the Secretary of State’s intention to provide a view on suitability for release. As soon as parliamentary time allows—

Order. When I say I am moving on, I am moving on; it is not for you to continue. It goes at my pace, not yours. I call Emma Lewell-Buck.

I have repeatedly raised the anguish that my constituents, the parents of Chloe Rutherford and Liam Curry, are going through. Chloe and Liam were murdered in the Manchester Arena terror attack. Archaic law in relation to terror attacks prevents my constituents registering their precious children’s death. I first raised the issue in March—it was urgent then. Despite multiple promises from the Government Benches that legislative change was being considered, nothing at all has been forthcoming to me or my constituents. Why?

I thank the hon. Lady for the work that I know she has being doing on the issue and I am very conscious that the matter is outstanding. I can only reassure her of the Government’s commitment to find a route through the current legal blockage that does not allow the families to take part in registration. I promise her that I will bring forward a solution as soon as I can.

Yesterday, The Telegraph reported on some very worrying cases of babies who were born alive but sadly died soon after, but whose deaths have been recorded as stillbirths by the hospital, meaning a coroner could not investigate. Three and a half years ago, my Civil Partnerships, Marriages and Deaths (Registration etc) Act 2019 required the Secretary of State to prepare a report on how the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 could be amended to give coroners the power to investigate those stillbirths. Why has it still not happened?

I can reassure my hon. Friend that the Government are still reviewing those recommendations and looking forward to bringing forward methods, with the Chief Coroner, on how we can address that backlog.

Will the new team look at the way we handle miscarriages of justice in this country? Will they look at the report from the all-party group on miscarriages of justice, which is chaired by me and the Chair of the Justice Committee, the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill), and help us to reform the way in which we treat miscarriages of justice?

I always make it a priority to ensure that I am working with Committees. I will very happily have a look at that report. I am happy to talk to the hon. Member and his co-chairman in due course as well.

Order. The hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns) is going to have to take her seat. She cannot just stand there while we are in the middle of questions.

The Justice Committee, of which I am a member, published our report on IPP—imprisonment for public protection—sentences on 28 September. There was a very clear recommendation that all IPP prisoners currently in custody should be resentenced, something which I wholeheartedly support. Could I ask my hon. Friend to confirm the timeframe for the Government’s response to the Justice Committee report? Further, what immediate steps are being put in place to support IPP prisoners currently struggling in a custodial environment?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. It is probably right that I point out that I was still a member of the Justice Committee when it took evidence for that inquiry, but I did not contribute to the drafting of the report. I absolutely acknowledge that we find ourselves in an extremely difficult position with IPP prisoners, and I am determined to resolve the problem as far as possible, but it has to be understood that there is not a simple one-size-fits-all solution that is appropriate for all people, so I am very carefully considering the recommendations. That is something we are doing very speedily, and as soon as we have come up with a conclusion, the Justice Committee will receive my response.

The Government rightly abandoned their Bill of Rights, describing it as a “complete mess”, principally because it sought to stay within the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights while ignoring its judgments. Is that still the Government’s position and, if so, how will they stop their next attempt also being a complete mess?

Rather like the answer earlier, I would refer the hon. Gentleman to answers I gave earlier. I have extensively outlined the position on the Bill of Rights.

So-called open prisons in constituencies such as mine, such as North Sea Camp, play a vital role in our justice system, but the inmates in those prisons often cause concern to local residents. Would the Minister join me in encouraging both the Prison Service and the Parole Board to engage with local communities so that they can understand what they do to make sure local communities are kept as safe as they possibly can be?

I am very happy to do so. Open prisons play a very important part in the rehabilitation of offenders, and I am more than happy to make sure that they have the understanding and the commitment of local communities, so we can rehabilitate prisoners, reduce reoffending and ensure we have fewer victims of crime.

That completes the questions. We now come to the urgent question. Those who wish to leave, please do so.