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Topical Questions

Volume 728: debated on Tuesday 21 February 2023

Since the last Justice oral questions, I have announced the expansion of incentivised substance-free living units from 25 to 45 prisons and investment in up to 18 abstinence-based drug recovery wings. I have also announced 220 community support organisations that will benefit from a £5 million fund to prevent young people from falling into crime, and I visited Strasbourg to discuss with colleagues at the European Court of Human Rights and the Council of Europe how the Government’s Bill of Rights Bill will protect and promote human rights.

Testimony provided by the POA trade union to the Justice Committee shortly before recess illustrated just how cruel, degrading and utterly dangerous it is to make prison officers work on the landings until the retirement age of 68. Would the Minister have wanted his own grandparents to have been forced to restrain violent young prisoners, or will he agree to open negotiations with the POA over the retirement ages of officers? We all know that 68 is too late.

I thank the hon. Lady. Of all the public servants I have worked with in my time as a Minister and an MP, none command greater respect than prison officers. I understand the huge job they do, which in the pandemic in particular was difficult. We are not going to revisit the retirement age issue, but I am always willing to discuss matters with prison officers and in particular the POA, and my door is always open.

T4. Does my right hon. Friend agree that getting prisoners off drugs is a critical part of reducing reoffending? Can he therefore set out the work his Department is doing to ensure that prisoners leave prison drug free? (903727)

My hon. Friend is right about this. It is one of the crusading missions we have, along with getting offenders into work. That is why we are increasing the number of incentivised substance-free living units from 25 in 2022 to 100 by March 2025 and investing in drug recovery wings. The big thing is not just to stop illegal drugs getting into our prisons, but to wean offenders off heroin and opiate substitutes such as methadone.

It has become apparent that if the Justice Secretary does not act, the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill could see thousands of part-time judges face a massive loss of pension rights, pushing many away from office at the worst possible time. This morning, when we debated the matter in a Delegated Legislation Committee, the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Mike Freer), was a little vague about whether the Department would fix this specifically by retaining the relevant regulations. Can the Lord Chancellor give that clear commitment today?

Of course, as the retained EU law Bill goes through, we will consider any significant issues that are raised, but that Bill is critically important as we take control of our own destiny and make sure that we have laws tailored to the UK that best suit the circumstances of the UK, whether that is England, Scotland, Northern Ireland or Wales. The hon. Gentleman ought to support that.

T5.   The Government have been reviewing the presumption of parental involvement in family courts for some time. Given that when this presumption is applied, it can put a child at risk of harm from an abusive parent, can I urge my right hon. Friend to publish that review as soon as possible? (903728)

I am aware that this is an incredibly sensitive issue, and one that the Government want to get right. I can reassure my hon. Friend that the Government will be publishing the response to that review very soon—as soon as we can do so.

T2. Like those of many Members in the Chamber today, my constituency is a legal aid desert; in fact, the nearest centre for special provision, welfare advice, mental health and much, much more is miles away in Wilmslow. After 13 years of Conservative government, that is not good enough, is it? What is the Minister going to do to improve access for all? (903724)

We published our response to the Bellamy review and the criminal legal aid independent review, and indeed are already implementing those reforms. They include uplifts of 15% to most legal aid fee schemes, which is very significant given the current context of public sector pay challenges. The hon. Gentleman needs to put this in some kind of perspective: just to give one aspect, criminal legal aid spend is expected to be £1.2 billion a year, so we are doing the right thing to make sure we support the most vulnerable who need access to legal aid and to the courts.

T6. We have an excellent target—up in lights—of recruiting 20,000 more police officers, but prison officers can appear to be out of sight and out of mind. These are brave men and women who regularly get assaulted. What are we doing on prison officer recruitment and retention? (903729)

I thank my hon. Friend and pay tribute to him for the work he did as Prisons Minister—I remember it, because I was a junior Minister in the Department at the same time. He is absolutely right about the value of prison officers, and how they are out of sight and out of mind; people do not bang pots and pans for them in the same way they do for other public servants, but we should take every opportunity to sing their praises.

To answer my hon. Friend’s specific question, between the end of 2016 and 2022, the number of full-time prison officers increased by 3,677 to 21,632. That shows that the recruitment programme is bearing fruit.

T3.   Ealing Law Centre, a fantastic practice in my constituency, is forced to turn away people eligible for legal aid because it is at capacity. Legal aid pays an average of just £74 per case, and civil legal aid fees have not increased since 2010. As people struggle during the ongoing housing crisis, my constituents risk losing their homes. Does the Minister think that that sum is enough, and that his Department is doing enough to prevent unnecessary home loss in court? (903725)

I thank the hon. Gentleman, who I know has a very considered and long-standing interest in this issue. Legal aid needs more money, which is why we are increasing spend by up to £138 million a year, taking the expected criminal legal aid spend next year to £1.2 billion, but it also needs reform. We cannot have the situation that we always have with the Labour party, where it just asks for more and more money but does not face the challenge of reforming systems so that they work in the best interests of the people of this country.

HMP Garth and HMP Wymott are successful prisons that do great work rehabilitating prisoners, but the Ministry of Justice has plans to put a third prison on the site, almost doubling the number of prisoners there—[Interruption.]

Order. Can the two people who are talking stop? I want to hear the hon. Lady. Sorry, please just sit down. Can I just say to the Whip that this is a very important question that really does matter to all of us?

The MOJ plans to almost double the number of prisoners on the site of HMP Garth and HMP Wymott, but those plans are hamstrung by an almost complete lack of public transport improvement or roads infrastructure improvement. Does the Minister acknowledge the deep concerns about these plans in Ulnes Walton, Croston and Leyland, and will he withdraw them, think again, and stop the third prison?

I acknowledge what my hon. Friend says about the concerns that people have. She could not be faulted for the strength and consistency with which she has campaigned on behalf of her constituents on these matters, and particularly the transport infrastructure that she mentions. She knows this, because there are already two prisons there, but a new prison delivers hundreds of construction jobs locally, hundreds of ongoing jobs and a whole range of roles and careers, with a very significant boost to the local economy.

T8. In just one year, between 2021 and 2022, nearly 5,000 reports of spiking-related incidents were recorded by the National Police Chiefs’ Council. The Ministry of Justice recently confirmed that in the four years between 2017 and 2021, there were just 40 convictions for spiking-related offences. Does the Secretary of State agree with the assessment of the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Derbyshire Dales (Miss Dines), that there are no gaps in the law relating to spiking, and if so, how can this low conviction rate be explained? (903732)

The challenge is less gaps in the law and more evidential difficulties in bringing prosecutions, but I share the hon. Lady’s aim to do everything we can with new technology to ramp up the number of prosecutions, to make sure there is accountability for what is, it must be said, an awful crime.

HMP Berwyn in Wrexham is piloting an MOJ employment board, chaired by John Murphy of J. Murphy and Sons and the governor, Nick Leader. The board brings together businesses and agencies to equip prisoners with meaningful employment ahead of release via work academies that certify them in logistics, construction and hospitality, while addressing issues for reoffending. I sit on the board, and I know that the Justice Secretary has not visited the UK’s newest and largest prison, so will he visit, please?

How could I resist such a tantalising offer? My hon. Friend makes the case powerfully. As the Prisons Minister just said, this can bring huge opportunities to the local economy, but critically, it gives offenders who are willing to take a second chance to turn their lives around an opportunity to get skills and get into work, and that makes our communities safer.

On the availability of legal aid, does the Secretary of State agree that where successful applications for legal aid are made by the same person successively on similar or the same issues, it is important that freedom of information requests tabled by Members of Parliament are answered, and the full cost of such legal aid is made available to the public?

I certainly support the hon. Gentleman’s pursuit of maximum transparency. If he is having problems, he can feel free to drop me a line and I will see what I can do, but the FOI Act sets out clearly prescribed limits, and we want to make sure we process those applications fairly and properly.

Around 12 months ago, the Minister set out a plan to recruit a further 4,000 magistrates. Can he give us an update on how that is progressing? What steps is he taking to retain the most experienced presiding justices?

There are a couple of things we are doing to achieve our target of 1,000 additional judicial vacancies this year, which is on track, and I am willing to share that with my hon. Friend. We have reformed judicial pensions today. In addition, we have increased the age limit, so that we can retain the best judiciary.

Is the Secretary of State aware that probably the greatest scandal in the justice system at the moment is joint enterprise? I believe that there are nearly 1,000 young people in prison with long sentences for it. He should take this cause to his heart. I will be here every time he is in the House, reminding him about joint enterprise, until he talks to the senior judiciary and gets something done about it.

I am meeting the hon. Member for Edmonton (Kate Osamor) tomorrow to discuss this issue, and I am about to be briefed on the announcement that the Crown Prosecution Service made over the weekend on this subject. I will, of course, make sure that the hon. Gentleman is kept informed.

The Secretary of State will know the importance of good, reliable data in driving justice policy and will recognise the work done by the Legal Education Foundation and its director Dr Natalie Byrom in this regard. Will he welcome its establishment of Justice Lab, a new dedicated research centre in this field, which is being launched in Dining Room A in this House tomorrow?

As always, the Chair of the Justice Committee draws our attention to critical developments in the criminal justice system. Data and that initiative are incredibly important. The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my right hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar) will attend the event in the House of Commons, so he will laud that even further and at more length.