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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 728: debated on Tuesday 21 February 2023

Justice

The Secretary of State was asked—

Prisoner Skills Development

We are delivering a new prison education service. The first prisoner apprentices have now started on highway maintenance for Kier and hospitality for Greene King. We are launching an employability innovation fund to bring more businesses into prisons.

MMC Homebuilding Ltd in Hardwicke is working with inmates from Leyhill Prison to build affordable homes quickly. I have met some of the lads, and they have mastered the skills needed to create thousands of homes for key workers, but there are daft barriers in place, particularly in relation to the acquisition of public land. What is the Ministry of Justice doing, with the Department of Health and Social Care, the Home Office and the Treasury, to unlock those issues so that win-win schemes such as this one can build thousands of key worker homes and allow prisoner rehabilitation at the same time?

I thank my hon. Friend; she is championing a brilliant project in her constituency. Getting more prisoners into work is absolutely vital for them, but also for reducing reoffending. Training prisoners in modern methods of construction is one of the ways we can equip them with the skills to deliver. As a former Housing Minister, I am very conscious of the need to release more surplus land for those purposes and I will speak to my colleagues in the way she asks.

Last month, the chief inspector of prisons wrote a paper on why prison education is so poor. He said it is not a priority, prisoners are not taken to classes, there is an inadequate curriculum and there is no accountability from the MOJ. Does the Secretary of State agree with all that, and if so, what is he doing about it?

The hon. Gentleman is right to refer to the problem. In relation to covid, it has been more difficult. What I can tell him is that: first, through the use of in-cell technology; secondly, with vocational skills and apprenticeships; and thirdly, when I became Justice Secretary I applied a whole set of key performance indicators and lifted up the waiting for both study in prison and getting offenders into work. That is having a dramatic effect.

Levels of Reoffending

6. What assessment he has made of the potential impact of his policies on levels of reoffending. (903704)

The overall proven reoffending rate has fallen since 2010, from over 31% to less than 25%, but that is still too high, so we are making major investments in drug treatment, accommodation support, education and employment to drive it down further.

Onward’s latest levelling up report found that tackling antisocial behaviour in crime hotspots is one of communities’ top priorities. In the six months to October 2022, the top 10 offenders in North Devon committed 137 offences. What steps is the Minister’s Department taking to reduce that reoffending and to support communities in tackling antisocial behaviour?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that antisocial behaviour is a blight. It is one of the reasons we are upping the amount of unpaid work hours available, including in Devon and Torbay probation unit. There were 37,000 hours of such work last year, and we want to increase that further. On stopping people reoffending, a number of things need to come into play to make that work, including some of the things that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was just talking about: sustained attention on drugs, both outside prison as well as inside; and the Turnaround programme for young people on the cusp of offending.

Futures Unlocked, a charity based in my constituency, does great work to rehabilitate ex-offenders, with a 30% reduction in reoffending rates among its clients. Will the Minister join me in welcoming the £90,000 grant it has just received from national lottery funding, which will allow John Powell and Laura Halford, together with their team of 33 volunteer mentors, to continue this really important work?

Yes, indeed. It really is important work across Warwickshire, Coventry and Solihull. I join my hon. Friend in strongly commending John, Laura and the whole team of volunteers. I also very much welcome the news about the grant from the national lottery community fund, which will help Futures Unlocked to extend its support for ex-offenders to lead crime-free lives and help to ensure that communities are safer.

Does the Minister agree that education and training are absolutely crucial in preventing reoffending? If so, how does he account for the 90% reduction in the number of prisoners taking AS-level qualifications over the past 10 years? Will he address that Select Committee finding from just three years ago? Will he also address the fact that one in four people in the prison estate are care leavers? How will he target those who have been in care to ensure that they do not go into the prison system in the first place?

That is a multifaceted question; I do not think I will do justice to all of it, but there were a number of very important points. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about care leavers. We are very conscious of the prevalence of care leavers in the system. Of course, we do not always know exactly, because it depends to some extent on self-declaration and not everybody wants to do that, so we have to be very conscious of that. I am also very conscious of people who leave the youth offending estate who may be going back into it. That is another thing we need to look at. I am slightly puzzled by his focus on AS-levels. As he will know, the whole landscape has changed, away from the AS and A2 system and towards a more linear programme of study—that is nothing to do with prisons; it is the general education system. But he is absolutely right about the centrality of education, which is why we have such a focus on literacy, numeracy and, increasingly, IT skills, as well as crucial vocational qualifications.

A company in my constituency called LettUs Grow, working with HM Prison Hewell in Worcestershire, is introducing prisoners to vertical farming, which is an excellent way of not only growing food for the prison but teaching prisoners new skills. However, it is disturbing to note that many prisons are doing less in the way of food growing and involvement in farming. Is the Minister planning to roll out this pilot to other prisons?

We are, in fact, introducing more variety of employment in prisons, but I want to see that go even further. One of the advantages of urban vertical farming is the fact that, for obvious reasons, it takes up less space than traditional farming. There are, of course, limits to what can be grown in that way, but the hon. Lady has made an interesting point that we shall no doubt have an opportunity to discuss further.

An effective probation service is key to reducing reoffending, but ever since the disastrous Tory privatisation the probation service has been in crisis. Six serious further offences are committed each week, experienced staff are abandoning the service, and the chief inspector of probation has said that it is

“impossible to say the public is being properly protected”.

The Tories’ legacy is failing to protect the public, failing to punish criminals, and failing to prevent crime. Is it not time they stood aside and let Labour fix their mess?

If I may start at the end of the hon. Lady’s question—no. I do not think that we will be taking lessons from the Opposition Front Benchers when it comes to clamping down on crime and standing up to criminals.

The people who work in the prohibition service do a unique and immensely difficult job, making difficult judgments and helping to support people, but also determining when it is necessary for them to be recalled to prison. It is important that when things do go wrong we learn lessons, and we have been learning those lessons. Let me also gently say to the hon. Lady that, sadly, serious further offences, although rare among people who have come out of prison on probation, happen every year, and it is important that we bear down on them and seek to learn lessons whenever they occur.

Criminal Courts Backlog

3. What recent estimate he has made of the size of the backlog of criminal court cases in Weaver Vale constituency. (903701)

The outstanding case load at Chester Crown court at the end of September stood at 626. We are taking action across the criminal justice system to bring down backlogs and improve waiting times for those who use our courts. We have introduced new legislation to give more flexibility for cases to be returned to the magistrates courts, we have ramped up judicial capacity, and we are investing a significant amount of funding for the criminal justice system.

We are now witnessing a backlog of 60,000 Crown court cases and 350,000 magistrates court cases, all as a direct result of political choices to close 260 courts, one of them in Runcorn in my constituency—it became a cannabis farm next to a police station before being burnt down. Does the Minister actually believe that a four-year wait for victims to have their day in court is acceptable?

The hon. Gentleman is right on one count: it is about political choices. If the Opposition stopped backing strikers, there might not be the current case backlog in our criminal justice system, which is a direct result of action by the Criminal Bar Association. It is this Government who are increasing the judiciary, who have settled the dispute and who are increasing court capacity, for instance by opening more Nightingale courts. We are taking the action; the Opposition back the strikers.

In the context of addressing the backlog and engagement with the legal profession, when I spoke to leading criminal lawyers such as Sarah Forshaw KC, they raised with me a specific question: when will the Government appoint the chair of the Criminal Legal Aid Advisory Board? The board was set up in October 2022, nearly a year after the independent review conducted by Sir Christopher Bellamy. Is there to be another year’s wait before this appointment is made?

The appointment of the chair following the independent review is currently being considered by the Secretary of State and an announcement will be made in due course. The board has met and continues to do its work. It is working effectively while we decide on the best form of chairing the meetings.

The Government’s common platform roll-out has been nothing short of disastrous. Among many other problems, I have heard of dozens of prisoners being released without the tags that their licence conditions demand and other instances where individuals have been detained in custody beyond their release date. This is all avoidable chaos caused by Tory incompetence. Can the Minister explain why, despite the best efforts of the staff, the data systems simply do not work? Will he outline when he will finally get a grip and sort out this very wasteful scandal?

I have to say to the hon. Gentleman yet again that if he wishes to return to the legacy systems he is welcome to argue that case, but those systems are at the end of their useful life. Since taking on this portfolio, I have gone out of my way to speak to the practitioners—the people down at the sharp end—and ensure that their concerns are reflected in all the technological enhancements. To describe the common platform as a disaster is simply untrue. This Government are investing in modernising our criminal justice system; Labour Members are nothing more than luddites.

European Convention on Human Rights

5. What discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the potential effect of withdrawal from the European convention on human rights on human rights in the UK. (903703)

8. What discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the potential effect of withdrawal from the European convention on human rights on human rights in the UK. (903706)

Our Bill of Rights will envisage us remaining a state party to the ECHR and fully availing ourselves of the margin of appreciation to restore some common sense to our human rights regime.

As we prepare to mark the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday agreement, will the Secretary of State recognise the extent to which the ECHR is integrated into that agreement, and the fact that leaving the convention would be a breach of his Government’s obligations under the peace process, which I am sure is something he would never countenance?

No one is more committed to the integrity of the UK than this Government. I set out the position on the Bill of Rights earlier. We have made it clear that we would not rule out ever withdrawing from the ECHR in the future. We certainly need to make sure that we have a viable legal regime that allows us to tackle illegal immigration.

Does the Secretary of State agree with the former Prime Minister, Sir John Major, who reminded the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee earlier this month that, far from being some bureaucratic creation, the ECHR was championed by Churchill and his Conservative Government, and that leaving the convention would place the UK in the dubious company of Belarus and Russia?

I do not think that many people take issue with the convention. Of course, it was negotiated at a very different time and place. The real issue has been the mission creep and the expanding and elastic interpretations of the ECHR since that time. I am confident that, with the Bill of Rights, we can address that in a comprehensive way.

Can I just say to the two Members who want to leave that they should stay for two full questions after they have spoken? We have not yet completed this question.

May I take the Secretary of State back to his answer to the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes)? If he is not ruling out ever leaving the convention, is he then not ruling out ever breaking the Good Friday agreement?

We are absolutely committed to the Good Friday agreement and the stability of Northern Ireland, which is why the efforts of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and the Prime Minister are so important.

The Secretary of State’s proposed Bill of Rights will mandate British courts to override the European convention on human rights in certain circumstances and restrict access to convention rights through British courts, but the Good Friday agreement guarantees direct access to the courts for any breaches of the convention, so how will he achieve his plans without breaching the Good Friday agreement?

We can remain absolutely committed to the Good Friday agreement with the Bill of Rights, not least because—the hon. Gentleman would know this if he had bothered to read it—the ECHR is retained within a schedule to the Bill of Rights. He has to face up to the fact that at the moment we have too many foreign national offenders whom we cannot remove from this country because of things like elastic interpretations of article 8. If he really wants to show his mettle—as he beats his chest, given the potential reshuffle on the Labour Front Bench—he should back us in taking every measure to remove foreign national offenders, because that is what the British public care about.

The truth is that the Justice Secretary has no answer to the question and his plan to rip up the Human Rights Act will create fresh divisions in Northern Ireland, where there is still no agreement on the protocol. What discussions has he had about this reckless plan with the Government of the Republic of Ireland or with the US Government, who have made it clear that any unilateral attempt to weaken convention rights in Northern Ireland would threaten a future US-UK trade deal?

The hon. Gentleman needs to read the Bill of Rights. It envisages that we will stay a state party to the ECHR, which is retained in a schedule, so all his other concerns melt away.

Both the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister have repeatedly failed to rule out withdrawing from the convention in the longer term, the impacts of which would be international humiliation for this country and a severe blow to international human rights law. It is shocking that these questions even have to be asked of the Government. What we need from the Justice Secretary is a full-throated defence of the convention and a commitment to the UK’s long-term membership. Instead of playing along with his more extreme Back Benchers, will he now deliver that unequivocal defence and a long-term commitment?

I am surprised to hear the SNP talk about extreme members of other parties. At the moment, the UK’s single biggest human rights concern is the trade in misery we see with the small boats and illegal immigration across the country. If the hon. Gentleman is committed to human rights, he should back us in taking every conceivably measure to deal with that problem.

Youth Offending

The “Beating crime plan” of 2021 highlighted, once again, the importance of early intervention for young people. One such programme is our support for 200 voluntary and community projects to engage children at risk of involvement in crime through mentoring and sports activities.

I am keen to see a more preventive approach to crime committed by young adults, particularly knife crime. In 2017, Ryan Passey, aged only 24, lost his life to a perpetrator with a knife, and we are still seeking justice. Will the Minister join me and the Passey family in exploring more ways of reaching out to young adults to ensure that carrying a knife does not become the norm? We all know that people who carry a knife risk becoming either a perpetrator or a victim.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Obviously I cannot comment on this individual case, but I join her in extending my sympathies to Ryan’s family. We have to do everything we can to bear down on serious violence, and serious violence reduction orders are part of that. The work of youth offending teams is also important in trying to catch people before they turn into more hardened criminals. Even before that, what happens in schools and in our communities is fundamental to helping children and young people stay on the right course.

We see a concerning number of young people being criminally exploited by drugs gangs, particularly in Stoke-on-Trent. Will my right hon. Friend look at what more can be done to prevent young people, particularly the most vulnerable, from being drawn into a cycle of criminality?

My hon. Friend makes a good point, and I am always keen to hear from him on this important subject. The Government have invested a lot of money in the 10-year drugs plan, and there is a strong commitment across Government to making sure we see through those commitments. He is also right that the best intervention point draws young people away from the lure and the great personal danger of drugs in the first place. The youth offending teams are part of that, and the new Turnaround early intervention programme goes further, alongside programmes such as the youth justice sport fund.

I do not think the public are convinced that the Minister is serious about preventing children and young people from entering the criminal justice system. I say that because £1 billion has been slashed from youth services, 750 youth centres have closed and 14,000 youth and community jobs have been axed. This Government have consistently cut services for children and young people. Will he agree to look again at the Government’s policies and, indeed, to follow Labour’s plan to invest in youth services?

It is not the case that we do not have a comprehensive approach to supporting young people. The Turnaround programme is an important new investment in this area. By the way, fewer under-18s are being incarcerated than when Labour was in government. It is right to try to keep people out of young offender institutions—out of being deprived of their liberty—where, quite often, they turn into more hardened criminals. We must also ensure that there is community support, and programmes such as the youth justice sport fund, which my right hon. Friend the Justice Secretary launched the other day, are an important part of that.

People in Hull North are a bit fed up with a very small minority of young people who are blighting their community through antisocial behaviour, including, most recently, throwing objects at buses, which has meant the suspension of bus services to an area of the country that has a very low rate of car ownership. What more can the Government do to help police forces such as Humberside, which is a top performing police force, and Hull City Council, which has seen its budget slashed over the past 13 years by this Government, to divert young people from crime and to deal with young offenders early?

I understand what the right hon. Lady says about the frustration and anger felt by her constituents when they have to deal with antisocial behaviour. In different ways, it is something that all hon. Members have to deal with, and it is important that we bear down on it. A range of out-of-court disposals is available to be used for young people, and there are diversions to help them get back on the right path. It is difficult for me to comment about the specific case of the kids throwing things at buses without knowing more about it, but I have no doubt that she will be in close contact with her local authority and her police as needed.

Tackling Violence Against Women and Girls

9. What steps his Department is taking to reform the criminal justice system to help tackle violence against women and girls. (903708)

The hon. Lady raises a hugely important issue. It is completely unacceptable that women and girls continue to be subject to violence and to the horrendous crimes that constitute VAWG—violence against women and girls. That is why, on top of the significant measures already taken by the Government, the Home Secretary yesterday announced a range of additional steps, including adding the most dangerous domestic abuse offenders to the violent and sex offender register. Much has already been done, but it is right that the Government remain focused on doing more and on continuing our reforms in this area, as I am sure the hon. Lady would expect.

Fewer than one in 50 recorded rapes results in a charge and it takes two years on average for a rape case to come to court. I hope the Minister will congratulate Northumbria’s police and crime commissioner, Kim McGuinness, on introducing independent sexual violence champions to support victims in their journey through the criminal justice system in the face of the massive failure of his Government, which is retraumatising victims. Will he agree to the immediate roll-out of specialist rape courts to prioritise rape victims, to which Labour is committed?

I am happy to join the hon. Lady in congratulating her local police and crime commissioner on her work on this hugely important issue. I would highlight the significant progress that has been made under this Government. The number of reports to the police of rape and serious sexual offences is going up, the number of referrals from the police to the Crown Prosecution Service for charge is going up, and the number of Crown court receipts is going up. Those are all significant signs of progress, but there is more to do.

On the hon. Lady’s point about courts, she will be aware that three courts—Snaresbrook, Leeds and Newcastle—are piloting additional measures on these issues. Those pilots are in their relatively early months and it would be wrong to prejudge them, but I continue to follow the progress of those courts with specialist measures with care.

The Minister is right to emphasise the importance of bearing down on these dreadful offences. Has he seen the research published this week in the Criminal Law Review based on the largest ever dataset of Crown court cases, which suggests that convictions for rape have risen markedly since 2018 and now stand at 75%, against an increase in charging as well, and that the conviction rate for rape and serious sexual offences is now higher than for other offences of violence against the person? That is important information. That work was carried out by Professor Cheryl Thomas, who is regarded as the leading academic expert on juries, using the largest ever dataset. Does the Minister agree that we should take that into account when we consider how best to take forward our policies to bear down on these serious offences—using up-to-date information to adjust our policies?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I confess that while I am aware of the Criminal Law Review article, I have yet to read it in full. I will certainly do so, given his strong recommendation. He is right to highlight what it says, which is that significant progress has been made, and that it is important to base our debates on this hugely emotive and important subject on evidence. A lot has been achieved, but there is still more to do.

Two years on from the Government’s end-to-end rape review, rape allegations leading to a charge or summons stand at 1.6%, rape victims are waiting 1,113 days for their case to get to court, and only 2,500 rape prosecutions were completed last year—half the level of 2016. Is this not a Government who are letting rapists off and letting victims down?

I debate these matters regularly with the hon. Lady, but I have to say to her, as I have said to other hon. Members, that while there is still more to do, there has been considerable progress under this Government. The number of people convicted of an adult rape offence went up by 65% over the past year; compared to pre-pandemic levels, convictions are up by 41%. That is significant progress, but of course there is more to do. That is why the Government are supporting the roll-out of Operation Soteria, quadrupling funding for victim and witness support services, and increasing the number of independent sexual and domestic abuse advisers by 300, to over 1,000. Those are just some examples of the measures the Government are taking. There is no complacency here—just a strong track record of work and delivery.

Support for Victims

The Government have consulted on the draft Victims Bill and have now responded to the Justice Committee’s excellent prelegislative scrutiny of it. Alongside that Bill, which we will bring to the House when parliamentary time allows, we continue to invest in victims’ services, as I set out in response to the previous question.

A survey by the former Victims’ Commissioner revealed that less than half of victims who had made a police report would do so again, due to their traumatic experiences. Victims are important, but seven years and six Justice Secretaries since the victims Bill was first promised, it still has not made it to the statute book. Will victims ever be a priority for this Government?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady, with whom I normally have a measured interaction on these issues. We have been clear in our commitment to the victims Bill, and we have been clear that we will bring it forward as soon as parliamentary time allows. It is a priority for my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor.

I say gently that this party and this Government put the needs of victims front and centre. We have massively increased the support and funding they receive. Through the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022, we have ensured that courts have the powers that they need to give tougher sentences to ensure that victims get justice. The Opposition talk tough, but when it comes down to it, as we saw with the PCSC Act, they fail to back victims and to put their votes where their mouths are. They talk; we get on with delivering for victims.

A staggering 3,000 incidents of antisocial behaviour take place every day, with almost 20 million people having experienced it last year. With the Government allowing this behaviour to fester and go unpunished, when will Ministers finally appoint a Victims’ Commissioner to champion the rights of victims of ASB?

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on being drawn in the ballot to ask a similar question to the one that he asked at the last Justice questions. The Victims’ Commissioner is a hugely important role, so it is right that we follow due process and ensure that we get absolutely the best candidate installed, as he would expect. That process is ongoing, and I look forward to a Victims’ Commissioner being appointed shortly.

Strengthening Human Rights

We introduced the Bill of Rights to this House, which will limit the abuse of human rights and restore some common sense. I have regular discussions with my colleagues, particularly the Foreign Secretary, on the work that we are doing to support the International Criminal Court and end impunity for war crimes in Ukraine.

In an article this morning, Lee Marsons of the Public Law Project sets out the significance of the European convention on human rights to LGBTQ people and the fact that the ECHR has allowed the expansion of human rights. Does the Secretary of State understand that human rights are for us all and that withdrawing from the ECHR is a specific threat to marginalised communities, whose hard-won rights should not be undermined?

I remind the hon. Lady that this Government introduced single-sex marriage—I did so proudly, along with my colleagues—and there is nothing in our reforms that would undo the important work we have achieved.

Given that the Joint Committee on Human Rights has said clearly that the UK Government should not pursue reform of the Human Rights Act 1998 without the consent of the devolved nations, will the Secretary of State promise right here, right now that he agrees with that and that his Government will not roll back or interfere with our human rights?

The hon. Lady will be shocked to know that I did not agree with all the contents of the JCHR report, but I refer to the statements we have made on how we have approached the devolved Administrations. I have personally been to all the nations of the United Kingdom to speak to not only politicians and Government officials, but academics and practitioners. We will continue that engagement and I am sure we will get the right thing for all people and all citizens of the UK.

Forensic Science: Miscarriages of Justice

14. If he will have discussions with his Cabinet colleagues on the potential impact of the quality of forensic science provision on the likelihood of miscarriages of justice. (903713)

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. The Department has been working closely with the Home Office and other criminal justice partners to deliver on our commitment to drive up quality standards in forensic science. Yesterday, the House debated the new statutory code of practice required by the Forensic Science Regulator Act 2021, which will grant the independent regulator statutory powers to investigate providers who fail to meet the required quality standards and who may put the interests of justice at risk.

Is the Minister aware that the Chair of the Justice Committee and I are co-chairs of the all-party parliamentary group on miscarriages of justice? The group is very concerned at what leading forensic scientists are telling us about the running down of the forensic science service in this country—a service that must be at the heart of any good justice system. Some £55 million was put into the pot to improve forensic science over the past three years, but nobody knows where it has gone, where it was spent or when it will take effect to stop the loss of great experts that we are experiencing.

Again, the hon. Gentleman makes an important point. This is a complex issue and I am more than happy to sit down with him and my hon. Friend the Chair of the Select Committee to discuss it in further detail, to get their expertise and to see how we can move things forward.

Legal Aid

We have launched the early legal advice pilot; we have invested in domestic abuse legal aid; we have invested money for housing reform and immigration legal aid; and legal aid spending is £1.2 billion per annum. The Government have a record of delivery on legal aid, investing in key areas, unblocking access and ensuring that money is well spent to protect those who need access to justice.

With the number of civil legal aid providers falling from more than 2,100 to fewer than 1,400 in the past 10 years and with areas such as the south Wales valleys, including my Cynon Valley constituency, becoming legal aid deserts, what assurances can the Minister provide that he will not allow further closures of legal aid providers before the review of civil legal aid concludes?

In fact, since the new standard contract was introduced in October, we have seen an increase in duty solicitors and firms taking on legal aid. We have restored some stability to the system. I understand the hon. Lady’s concerns, but I can tell her that the Legal Aid Agency monitors the issue of what are known as deserts closely to ensure that no part of the country is left uncovered.

The Government have repeatedly made political choices that have left our criminal justice system on its knees. They have recently found additional money to ensure that defence and prosecution barristers are given the 15% increase in line with the Bellamy review recommendation, but solicitors have been given only a 9% increase. That unequal decision puts at risk access to justice for victims, with more than 1,000 duty solicitors quitting in the last five years. Will the Lord Chancellor commit to funding all of Bellamy’s recommendations and put solicitors on the same footing?

The uplift for solicitors and barristers has already started to be paid. The hon. Gentleman mentions duty solicitors and, as I have said, since the new contract has been in place, we have started to see an increase in the number of people taking on those roles and in firms taking on legal aid, so we are seeing the benefits of the investment in both the litigators’ graduated fee scheme and the advocates’ graduated fee scheme.

On the general investment in legal aid, I am aware of the concerns of the Law Society, with which I am having constructive discussions to try to find a way forward.

Violent and Sexual Offences: Processing Times

17. What steps his Department is taking to improve processing times for cases involving violent and sexual offences. (903718)

Although I have faced the hon. Gentleman in Westminster Hall, I think this is the first opportunity that I have had to congratulate him from the Dispatch Box on his election to the House last year—[Interruption.] Wait and see.

It remains our priority to deliver swifter justice for victims. We are increasing court capacity by removing the limit on sitting days in the Crown court for the second financial year in a row, and we are recruiting up to 1,000 more judges across all jurisdictions in 2022-23. The Government took action to tackle the Criminal Bar Association strike, which added to those delays, and alongside all those measures we are implementing the £1.3 billion court reform programme, which aims to make our court processes more efficient.

Under this Government, just 1.5% of recorded rapes result in a charge. When charges are made, sentences are often woefully inadequate. That is why Labour has proposed minimum seven-year sentences for rapists. Why do the Government not support that?

As I highlighted in response to previous questions, reports to the police are up, referrals by the police to the CPS are up, and charges and Crown court receipts for such crimes are up. As I said to the hon. Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist), who is no longer in her place, I will take no lessons from the Labour party about being tough on sentencing. That party voted against measures in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 to give judges the power to increase sentences.

Female Prison Estate

18. What steps he is taking to ensure the safety, privacy and dignity of women within the female prison estate. (903719)

Last month, we published our plan to deliver the female offender strategy for England and Wales, including better outcomes and physical conditions for women in custody.

The recent controversy over the custody of double rapist Adam Graham and other violent offenders has illustrated the danger and naivety of self-ID, with tumultuous consequences, yet the Ministry’s latest statistics for England and Wales show that 230 trans-identifying males are being held on the female prison estate, and that there have been 97 sexual offences, 44 of which were rape. The Scottish Government acted swiftly, so what action will the UK Government take to limit that harm, review practices and clarify equalities legislation to ensure that prisoners are protected from abusive males?

Of course, safety must always come first. I can confirm that we do not hold prisoners based on their self-declared gender identity. Our approach is that transgender women, including those with gender recognition certificates, can be held on the main women’s estate only if a risk assessment concludes that it is safe. The changes to our policy mean that no transgender woman convicted of a sexual offence, or who retains male genitalia, can be allocated to the general women’s estate other than in truly exceptional circumstances.

May I welcome the comments about the female prison estate? Turning to the male prison estate, His Majesty’s Prisons Garth and Wymott in my constituency—

Order. That does not link into this—[Interruption.] Order. One of us will have to sit down, and it is certainly not going to be me. It might help us both if I suggest to the hon. Lady that she might catch my eye during topical questions, when it would be appropriate to raise the very important matter in her constituency.

Transgender Prisoners

19. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of his Department’s policy on the allocation of transgender prisoners in England and Wales. (903720)

This question relates to the previous question, as well. Since the 2019 strengthening of our policy, there have been no assaults or sexual assaults committed by transgender women in women’s prisons, and last year we further strengthened that policy.

I welcome the fact that the Government are issuing new guidance on the accommodation of such prisoners, but does my right hon. Friend agree that having no biological male imprisoned in a woman’s prison should be a strong principle henceforth? Does he agree that women’s prisons and the women within them must not be used as therapeutic support for trans-identifying male prisoners?

I am happy to confirm to my hon. Friend, as I said a moment ago, that safety must come first. We want to support everybody who is in our care and who we are keeping inside for the protection of the public. We need to make sure that safety in prisons is as strong as it can be, and I can confirm to my hon. Friend that following the policy updates, transgender women with male genitalia will not be held in the general women’s estate except in truly exceptional circumstances. Exemptions will require sign-off by a Minister to ensure they can be considered only in the most truly exceptional cases.

For those who identify as transgender, it is important to recognise, as the Minister has, the safety issues. Across this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, it is important that we have a policy and a strategy that is the same everywhere. Has the Minister had any opportunity to talk to the police and the Department of Justice in Northern Ireland to ensure that we in Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland Assembly have a policy that follows the route and focus here?

The short answer is that I have not had a chance to have that conversation. It is true that there are differences in different parts of the United Kingdom, and those have been played out in the media substantially over the past couple of weeks. I believe our policy here in England and Wales is the right one. It is respectful to everybody, but makes sure we are making safety paramount.

Topical Questions

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.