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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 730: debated on Tuesday 28 March 2023


The Secretary of State was asked—

Violence against Women and Girls

1. What steps his Department is taking to reform the criminal justice system to help tackle violence against women and girls. (904342)

The Government are taking a zero-tolerance approach to violence against women and girls. Just this month, in response to the Wade review, we announced tougher sentences for domestic abusers who kill their partners and ex-partners.

It is now more than two months since His Majesty’s inspectorate of probation published its independent “Serious Further Offences” report into Jordan McSweeney, following the murder of Zara Aleena. Have the Government yet implemented the urgent actions set out in that report?

I have met Zara Aleena’s family and the chief inspector of probation to talk about those failings. We have accepted all of the recommendations. I can write to the hon. Gentleman in relation to those, because they were numerous, but we are in the process of implementing each and every one of them.

The Rape Crisis report, published yesterday, found that rape survivors are waiting 839 days for their cases to be heard in court—longer than for any other crime type. These delays are causing harm to some of the most traumatised victims. Many are dropping out of their cases altogether, while others have tried to take their own life. When will the Government fully commit to rolling out specialist rape courts in every Crown court in the country to fast-track cases, protect victims and punish rapists?

The hon. Lady raises a very important issue. As she knows, we have already rolled out specialist rape courts in Snaresbrook, London, Leeds and Newcastle. We have introduced the 24/7 rape and serious sexual violence support line, along with a range of other initiatives, including quadrupling the funding for victims since 2010. I can also tell her—because some of the data released in that report has been overtaken by more recent data—that the average number of days for adult rape from charge to case being completed has, in the past quarter, come down by 10 weeks, or 17%. There is more to do, but hopefully that will reassure her.

The initiatives that the Government have introduced are very welcome. One of those is the pre-recorded cross-examination under section 28, but, to make that work, there has to be a proper level of remuneration for advocates on both sides to ensure that we have skilled and experienced barristers prosecuting and defending those cases. What arrangements have now been made to finalise the conditions and terms of payment for section 28 proceedings with both defence and prosecution barristers? Until we get that right, we will not get the cases through at the speed we wish.

I thank the Chair of the Select Committee for his question. We have already introduced the statutory instrument to increase that uplift for those lawyers conducting the section 28 pre-recorded evidence. It has now been rolled out nationwide and it will start to make a difference.

Prisoners: Skills Development

Among other things, we are renewing the prisoner education service, establishing an employability innovation fund, and ensuring that skills acquired match business need through close work with employers.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer. Under my Homelessness Reduction Act 2017, prison governors have a duty to ensure that people leaving prison are housed properly after they have served their sentence. It is vital that, to prevent reoffending, we ensure that prisoners get the best possible education. What extra measures is he considering to ensure that prisoners are given the skills they need to rebuild their lives after they have served their sentence?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the work he did, through the Homelessness Reduction Act, to support prisoners throughout our communities. He is right to identify not only the importance of skills and getting into work, but the need for direct support with accommodation. We are investing heavily in expanding transitional accommodation at the different levels. Although there is still a way to go, it is very encouraging that the proportion of prisoners being left homeless after leaving prison has reduced by 5 percentage points over the past couple of years.

We all want to see more people rehabilitated from the Prison Service. The Minister will know, however, that His Majesty’s chief inspector of probation has described that service as “in survival mode” due to staffing pressures and huge workloads. What does he expect his Department to do to put that right?

In relation to the probation service, which I think the hon. Gentleman is asking about, we are investing in increasing staff numbers and ensuring that those staff have the right support, and we have seen those staff numbers grow. It is also important, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State just said, that we learn from when things go wrong or have gone wrong in the past and ensure we respond appropriately.

Getting prisoners with substance abuse issues into meaningful skills training first requires getting them off drugs. Can my right hon. Friend tell the House what he is doing to help prisoners and to tackle drugs in prisons?

My hon. Friend is quite right; that is a crucial part of the jigsaw, together with maintaining family ties. In a major new initiative, we are creating up to 18 new drug recovery wings so that prisoners can focus on achieving abstinence not only from illicit drugs, but from prescribed substitutes. We are also increasing the number of incentivised substance-free living units and have been investing strongly in prison security to stop drugs getting in in the first place.

The Shannon Trust—no connection to me, by the way—has concluded that 50% of people in prison cannot read or struggle to do so. What steps are being taken to ensure that basic literacy and reading skills are taught at all prisons for all ages across the United Kingdom?

We all trust Shannon; the hon. Gentleman is quite right to draw attention to the good work of his namesake trust, which for many years has operated a very good peer model in our prisons, where prisoners help other prisoners. We also work with the trust directly on other programmes, and just last week we announced a new funding award to the Shannon Trust and one other charity to help in that important basic literacy work that he mentions.

Prison Education

3. What assessment he has made of the potential merits of bringing the delivery of all prison education into the public sector. (904344)

Improving education in prisons is a top priority. The public sector, the independent sector and the voluntary sector all have an important part to play in that. Indeed, three of the four contracted core education providers currently are classified as public sector bodies.

We spend more than £150 million a year on a prison education system that is unfit for purpose, and much of that is extracted as profit for failing outsourced companies. Does the Minister think that is good value for money?

That is a mischaracterisation of how the education service runs in prison. There are an extraordinary number of very dedicated people working in that service, and three of the four providers, as I say, are essentially further education college providers. We can and must do better, because we know that education and the acquisition of skills help to keep people out of trouble and from returning to jail once they get out.

Joint Enterprise: Under-18s

4. If he will make an estimate of the number of people under the age of 18 serving custodial sentences who were convicted under joint enterprise. (904345)

The number of young people in custody is at an historic low, with the number of under-18s in custody having fallen by 77% over the past decade. The Ministry of Justice does not, however, collate information on whether a prosecution or conviction for any crime was also one of joint enterprise. We are considering whether such data could be collected as part of the Common Platform programme.

The campaign group JENGbA—Joint Enterprise Not Guilty by Association—estimates that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of young people under 18 in prison under parasitic accessorial liability, a novel form of joint enterprise that was supposedly overturned in 2016. People convicted under PAL have no true route to appeal because of the high bar used by the Court of Appeal. Will the Minister consider my Criminal Appeal (Amendment) Bill, which is going through the House of Commons at the moment? It is desperately needed for those young people, who should not be in prison.

I am aware of the court case to which the hon. Gentleman refers, and I am always happy to engage with him on his private Member’s Bill.

Legal Aid

On 30 November 2022, we published our full response to the criminal legal aid independent review and a consultation on policy proposals. We are boosting the system with up-front investments to address the most urgent concerns, including uplifts of 15% for most legal aid fee schemes. We have also launched a review of civil legal aid to identify options that inform our long-term strategy of improving the sustainability of the civil legal aid system. In March 2022, we published a detailed consultation on legal aid means testing arrangements. The consultation proposes changes that should mean that legal aid is available to 2 million more people in civil cases and 3.5 million more people in magistrates courts.

I thank the Minister for his response. My office regularly refers constituents to the local law centre for housing issues relating to disrepair. The law centre is concerned that it is largely not covered by legal aid on damages for clients. Law centres are also not recognised as exempt professional firms so they are unable to purchase after-the-event insurance, meaning that clients are exposed to costs if they lose their case. Will the Minister consider extending access to legal aid in housing cases and recognising law centres as exempt professional firms?

On the exemption issue, if the hon. Lady would like to write to me, I will certainly investigate that. She will be pleased to know that in the last two months we have invested an additional £10 million to boost the amount of legal aid available on housing matters.

Legal aid is the backbone of our criminal justice system, and it is running on empty. In England and Wales, 54 constituencies have no legal aid providers at all, and 80% of the population do not have access to welfare legal aid providers in their local authority. The current legal aid system is not just a postcode lottery but a regional lottery. The Government have kicked the civil legal aid review into the long grass and are still not following Bellamy’s recommendations. When will the Lord Chancellor meet Bellamy’s recommendations in full?

I do not recognise spending more than £2 billion a year as “running on empty”. Spending an extra £4 million on section 28 fees, an extra £10 million on housing legal aid, an extra £5.6 million on special guardianship legal aid, and an extra £3.3 million on special and wasted preparation legal aid is not “running on empty”. In terms of representation across the UK, the Legal Aid Agency regularly ensures that all areas of the UK are covered by duty solicitors and legal aid firms.

During yesterday’s debate on the Illegal Migration Bill, I sought clarity on how people impacted by the Bill will be able to secure access to legal advice and legal aid. Those people—be they an Afghan fighter pilot or an LGBT person who has fled Uganda—will have just eight days to make an application and seven days to appeal against removal on the grounds of serious and irreversible harm, and all that will happen while they are in immigration detention. So let me try again: how will access to legal advice be secured for such people, and will legal aid be available to them?

If I may, as it is such a technical issue, I will happily meet the hon. Gentleman or write with a detailed answer.

Family Courts

Drawn-out court proceedings can have a damaging impact on parents and children. We have published a consultation on proposals for a funded mandatory mediation and co-parenting programme before court to enable more families to resolve disputes out of court. We have also invested a further £15 million in the family mediation voucher scheme, which will help about 28,000 more separating families over the next two years. By freeing up stretched court resources, those changes will help families whose cases need to be heard by a court, such as those involved in domestic abuse.

Does my hon. Friend agree that this Government have taken the necessary steps to prevent perpetrators of domestic violence from being able to question their victims in family court proceedings, and that the family court should never again be a place where victims can be subjected to further abuse from their perpetrators?

My hon. Friend raises a very important point. In July 2022, a landmark Domestic Abuse Act 2021 measure came into force, prohibiting domestic abuse perpetrators and victims from cross-examining each other in person during certain family and civil proceedings. Family and civil courts can now engage a court-funded qualified legal representative to conduct cross-examinations in these cases. That scheme is very popular, and hundreds of qualified legal representatives have registered for it. This will ensure that those people in court are protected from such cross-examination.

In one of my last advice surgeries, a parent described to me their toxic experience of family court. The Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service has highlighted the harm posed to children from drawn-out court proceedings. What further measures is the Minister taking to enhance and promote mediation where appropriate, so that the impact of separation is not exacerbated by legal proceedings?

My hon. Friend raises a very important and sensitive issue. The Government are reviewing all aspects of family law, particularly in terms of how to ensure that families stay out of court. The extra £15 million for mediation vouchers will help to keep people out of that adversarial situation. It is also about the use of language, to ensure that children are not scarred by the adversarial process. A wraparound process that is family-friendly, with mediation, should address the concerns she has raised.

Over three years, one of my constituents was dragged back to the family court by their ex-partner 25 times. Despite having the bravery to leave an abusive relationship, they faced further trauma as a result of an ex-partner who was able to use the family court system to further control and manipulate them and their child. What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that the family courts cannot be abused in this way?

The hon. Lady raises a point that has been raised before. The Department is reviewing how we can ensure that people caught up in the family court system are protected from such abuse.

The best support that families could get is representation, but the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 virtually abolished private law family legal aid. Saturday will be the 10th anniversary of that Act coming into effect, and since then, legal aid expenditure has been cut by a third, advice is given in three quarters of a million fewer cases and applications for full legal aid have halved, as has the number of providers. In the light of that, does the Minister think that LASPO has been good or bad for access to justice?

What I can tell the hon. Gentleman is that we have spent over £813 million on civil legal aid. In fact, the means-testing review is expected to widen civil legal aid availability to an extra 2 million people, so I do not accept the premise that we are failing families or the civil legal aid system, because of the investment we are making.

HMCTS: Probate Service

7. If he will make an assessment of the adequacy of the performance of HM Courts and Tribunals Service’s probate service in the last 12 months. (904351)

Despite the increased volume of applications received during and after the covid-19 pandemic, the average length of time taken for a grant of probate once all required documents are received has been maintained at between four and seven weeks, with the average response being almost one week faster in the third quarter of 2022 than the yearly average for 2020 and 2021.

A number of my constituents have been experiencing significant delays in their probate applications—some have been waiting for over 10 weeks—and have had difficulties in accessing staff through the contact centre and the hotline. What message does the Minister have for my constituents who are stuck waiting for answers, and what is he doing to improve the application process? At the end of the day, bereaved families are having to deal with the estates of deceased relatives, and this is a deeply painful time for so many constituents up and down the country.

My right hon. Friend raises a case that I have taken some time to unpick. I can reassure her that wait times for calls to the helpline have dropped from an hour to between five and 10 minutes. In terms of the number of what are called stops, when we have to ask for additional information, we are looking at why the form causes that, to see whether it is user-friendly. We are also recruiting additional caseworkers to ensure that complex cases are speeded through the system.

The probate service was part of the reform programme, which has now been paused following a National Audit Office report, so could the Minister say who is responsible for this shambolic waste of public money, and what the next steps are?

I have to say to the right hon. Lady that that is an interesting take on a pause. I do not think that taking extra time to ensure that a new system beds down correctly and listening to the concerns of the staff, which many Opposition Members have been asking for for many weeks, is shambolic. Many of the issues in the probate system are caused by the sheer volume of cases coming in with the increased death rate, but they are also about ensuring that we have enough staff on site with the right skills. That is why we are recruiting people to deal with the volume of cases.

Legal Aid

9. If he will take steps to ensure that legal aid is used only for cases which relate to individual cases; and if he will make a statement. (904353)

Legal aid is granted only to individuals. There are specific regulations that set out the position relating to multi-party applications. Following changes made in 2012, legal aid may be granted to participants in MPAs only where each individual has a cause of action and will directly benefit from proceedings. This is a way of dealing with a collection of cases more efficiently by identifying a lead case. In addition, under the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, any judicial review must have the potential to produce a benefit for the individual applicant, a member of their family, or the environment.

I thank the Minister for that response and I welcome the changes that have been made, but it still seems to be the case that sometimes, legal aid or connected taxpayers’ money can be used to challenge decisions that have been democratically arrived at and would, in fact, benefit communities.

I am aware of the concern that Members have about the use of legal aid in such cases, but I can reassure my hon. Friend that the Legal Aid Agency reviews all cases to ensure that the funding decisions are necessary before they are agreed.

Does the Minister agree that legal aid availability is a very important part of the justice system, but it is equally important that the wider community becomes aware of the cost of repeated cases of legal aid for the same application, so that there is full transparency among the wider public about what they are paying for?

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. The Legal Aid Agency will always monitor cases where we get repeat applications for funding to ensure that any application is warranted before being agreed.

Probation Service: Caseloads

We have injected extra funding of more than £155 million a year to deliver more robust supervision, recruit thousands more staff, and reduce case loads to support the vital work of the probation service in keeping the public safe.

I thank the Minister for that response, but it does not really accord with what I have been told by probation officers, which is that they are overworked, underpaid and feel undervalued, and that the service is haemorrhaging staff. There are also an awful lot of people off sick. What impact does he think that will have on efforts to make sure that offenders do not go on to reoffend, and that we do not have a crime wave on our streets because we are simply not putting the resources into the probation service that could help prevent that?

I join the hon. Lady in paying tribute to the men and women who work in the probation service for the absolutely vital work that they do tirelessly. It is very important that we make sure we have the right levels of staffing; I can report to her that in calendar year 2022, the number of staff in post rose significantly, from 17,400 to 18,600. In her own area of the south-west, covering Bristol, we had 210 joiners for the year, but it is obviously very important that as those people come through, we carry on having the pipeline of talent coming in. It is also very important that we are investing suitably in senior probation officers for their oversight, which we are doing.

Parole System: Review

12. What recent progress his Department has made on taking forward the proposals for reform in its root-and-branch review of the parole system. (904356)

16. What recent progress he has made on introducing ministerial oversight of parole board decisions to release high-risk offenders back into the community before the end of their sentence. (904362)

We will shortly be bringing forward legislation to implement key measures in the root-and-branch review to ensure that public protection is the sole criterion and focus for parole decision making.

I thank the Secretary of State for his answer. My concerns on this point come alongside those of my neighbour and hon. Friend the Member for South Leicestershire (Alberto Costa), about Colin Pitchfork, the double child murderer and rapist who was released on parole, reoffended and rearrested. I do not expect the Secretary of State to comment on that specific case, but how does he balance the need to avoid political interference with raising public legitimate concern?

I thank my hon. Friend, and my hon. Friend the Member for South Leicestershire (Alberto Costa), who have campaigned tirelessly for parole reform. Our constituents and members of the public already think that we, as Ministers and as Members of this House, are responsible for the justice system. What most frustrates them is when we duck these issues, or if matters are delegated and we do not have any control. I can tell my hon. Friend that we will overhaul the criteria so that public protection is the exclusive focus of decision making. We are already, as I am keen to do, recruiting more parole board members with law enforcement experience, because they have a different, more risk-averse approach to public protection. We will be introducing a ministerial check over the most serious offenders, including murderers, rapists, terrorist offenders and child killers. I hope that will have the support of those on the Opposition Benches.

Court Proceedings: Social Media

We have taken steps to mitigate the risk that social media poses to court cases following a call for evidence in 2019. Arrangements are in place with social media companies to ensure that relevant material is flagged and removed, and we are working to improve the enforcement of anonymity laws. Courts will take appropriate action against those who misuse social media, and they may be found in contempt of court, resulting in a fine and up to two years in prison.

In May 2020, just as we entered the first lockdown, a young woman from my constituency posted false allegations on Facebook claiming that she was the victim of an Asian grooming gang, and that she had been raped, trafficked and beaten. The images accompanying that post were absolutely horrific. As the House might imagine, the post went global and it went viral, and in the lockdown world, it was all people were talking about. Hundreds of thousands of messages were being shared on Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and others. The environment made it increasingly difficult for the police to do their job gathering evidence, and it even risked the viability of a trial going ahead at all. Traditional media carry reporting restrictions for such cases. Will the Minister agree to meet me to discuss whether we can look at applying the same conditions to social media channels?

I am more than happy to meet my hon. Friend. I can reassure him that contempt of court and reporting restrictions apply to social media as well as mainstream media. We continually look at what more we can do to strengthen the law in this area, and that is why we have asked the Law Commission to consider the issue as part of a wide-ranging review of the law on contempt of court. Two new offences in the Online Safety Bill will criminalise the type of behaviour we have seen in the Eleanor Williams case. The false communications offence will criminalise communications where a person sends information that they know to be false with the intention of causing harm. As I say, I am more than happy to meet my hon. Friend.

Court Cases Backlog

The outstanding case load has reduced across the UK. I do not have specific numbers for my hon. Friend’s constituency, as we do not calculate them by constituency. We are taking action across the criminal justice system to bring backlogs down and improve waiting times for those who use our courts.

My hon. Friend will be aware of the saying that justice delayed is justice denied. What steps is he taking to ensure that the courts sit for as long as possible to try to get the backlog down?

I can reassure my hon. Friend that we have removed the limit on sitting days in the Crown court for the second financial year in a row, and that means that courts will continue to work at full capacity. We are also continuing with the use of 24 Nightingale courtrooms into the 2023-24 financial year, and are recruiting 1,000 new members of the judiciary to ensure that we get the backlog under control.

Victims of crime are having to wait up to four and a half years for their day in court. Since 2010, 50% of magistrates courts have been closed. Do the Secretary of State and the Minister believe that is a coincidence?

In terms of the efficiency of the courts estate, I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that I am less hung up about the availability of buildings in every town and city and more hung up about whether we have sitting days and judges to ensure that our criminal justice system is swift and fair.

The Minister would have us believe that all was well and great progress was being made in tackling the courts backlog. Then we got the damning National Audit Office report into the reform programme. The catalogue of problems is too extensive to detail here, from the ailing common platform to the hundreds of failing processes within the 46 projects yet to operate in the way they were intended. I therefore pose the same questions as the NAO: when will Ministers be able to quantify the now decreasing benefits of the programme and demonstrate that it has improved access to justice?

I appreciate that the shadow Minister has a somewhat luddite approach to implementing new systems. I also say to him that the Opposition have been calling for us to listen to the staff using the common platform, which is what we have done. In fact, when I go out and about and talk to courts staff, including listing clerks and clerks in magistrates courts, the benefits of the common platform are understood, but the implementation does need some work, which is why we are pausing it. However, the alternative is to return to legacy systems, which were on the verge of collapse and for which support will be withdrawn in the near future. If that is his future, he is welcome to it.

Domestic Homicide: Sentencing

15. What plans his Department has to consult on the options for reform in its response to the domestic homicide sentencing review. (904361)

I am very grateful to Clare Wade KC for her work on this review, and I would also like to pay tribute to Carole Gould and Julie Devey for their tireless campaigning following the tragic murders of their daughters Ellie Gould and Poppy Devey Waterhouse, in whose names they campaign.

As my hon. Friend will be aware, the Deputy Prime Minister published the domestic homicide sentencing review on 17 March. We will launch a public consultation on increasing the starting point to 25 years for murders preceded by controlling or coercive behaviour. We have also announced other key measures to help ensure that sentencing better reflects the seriousness of these horrific crimes, so that this important legislation can be introduced as swiftly as possible.

My constituent Carole Gould broadly welcomes the 17 proposals in the Wade report. Indeed, she welcomes the fact that we have had the Wade report at all. However, we bitterly regret the fact that only two years have been added for overkill, coercive behaviour and strangulation. It should be much higher than that: it should be 25 years minimum. We are also very disappointed that, of the 17 proposals Ms Wade brought forward, only three have so far been taken up by the Government. When will the Minister bring forward a consultation on the remaining 14, and how many of the remaining 14, which Ms Wade believes should form one package, will be accepted by the Government?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I am very much aware of the calls of Julie and Carole in this respect, and of their campaigns. I had the privilege of meeting them virtually recently, and I look forward to seeing them in person in due course. I am also aware of his dedicated campaigning on these issues in his role as a constituency MP.

Reflecting the complexity of the law in this area, our full response will be published this summer, providing an important opportunity to engage stakeholders and hon. Members as we continue to consider the remaining recommendations. We published the review because my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister felt it was very important that it was out there and people could contribute to that debate. As my hon. Friend highlights, we have accepted three recommendations and rejected one, and the other 13 will be considered very carefully in the light of representations made to us in the coming months.

Small Boat Crossings

18. What steps his Department is taking through the criminal justice system to deter small boat crossings of the English channel. (904364)

Under the Nationalities and Borders Act 2022, 162 people, including 34 small boat pilots, have been convicted, resulting in sentences totalling 108 years—legislation, of course, opposed by the Labour party.

I thank the Secretary of State for the answer, but is my right hon. Friend aware of the concerns of many of my constituents that illegal immigrants and their lefty London lawyers are seen to game the court system by relying on its sluggishness so that they can remain here indefinitely? [Interruption.] What steps is he taking to boost capacity in the upper and first tier-tribunals ahead of the Illegal Migration Bill coming into force?

I thank my hon. Friend, who has woken up the shadow Front Bench team from their slumbers with that one. He is absolutely right. As part of the work I am doing with the Home Secretary, we are increasing the number of judges we are recruiting for the immigration and asylum chamber. That means 72 more judges for the first-tier tribunal and 50 more for the upper tribunal. We want appeals decided swiftly and decisively, so that we can clear the court system and also make sure we remove those who are not entitled to come here.

Domestic Abuse

My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister and I have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues about tackling domestic abuse and how we can build on the progress already made. The Government have made good progress on our implementation of the Domestic Abuse Act 2021, and the majority of measures are now in force. In February of this year, we announced additional measures to further tackle domestic abuse, including recording the most harmful domestic abuse offenders on the sex offenders register and classifying violence against women and girls as a national threat for policing for the first time. Just this month, we have announced tougher sentences for domestic abusers who kill their partners or ex-partners.

I thank the Minister for his answer, but several areas were not addressed in the Domestic Abuse Act 2021, and many of us believe that they need to be covered in the forthcoming victims Bill. Specifically, they relate to improving the support that survivors receive. It is now a year since the publication of the draft Victims Bill, and we are still waiting for its First Reading. Will the Minister update the House on what the timetable is likely to be, and whether, once introduced, it will address areas such as the lack of specialist services for minority groups, the lack of mental health support, and the gaps in provision for children?

As ever, I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question and the tone in which she put it. She will have seen the draft Victims Bill, and our response to the prelegislative scrutiny report by the Justice Committee. On support, she will be aware that we have more than quadrupled the funding for victims of crime, up from £41 million in 2009-10. As the Minister who wrote the victims strategy when I was last in this post in 2018-19, like her I very much look forward to the victims Bill. I hope she will not have long to wait, and I look forward to it being brought forward in due course. When it is, I look forward to working constructively with her as it passes through this House and the other place.

Since questions began at 11.30 am today, 12 women across the country will have been raped. It is likely that not a single one of them will see their rapist charged. Those women have no Victims’ Commissioner and no victims Bill to protect them. Have not women suffered enough? How long will victims have to wait until they are put first in this broken justice system?

Under this Government victims are always put first. The hon. Lady raised two or three points, and she will be aware that reports and charges of rape, and receipts in the Crown court, have been going up. There is more to do in that space—we have been clear about that—but we have continued to drive progress, not least through the Operation Soteria approach that we have piloted in a number of areas. She mentioned the appointment of a Victims’ Commissioner, and my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister has been clear that we are in the process of recruiting for that role. I am sure she would wish us to follow due process—those on the Labour Front Bench have called for that on a number of topics—and that is exactly what we are doing. I urge her to be patient with respect to the victims Bill, and I hope she will shortly be satisfied on that score.

Topical Questions

Since the last Justice questions I hosted a conference of Justice Ministers and representatives from around the world—more than 40 countries—and we agreed a package of financial support and technical assistance to help the International Criminal Court, in particular with the indictment in relation to alleged war crimes in Ukraine. We have also published the independent domestic homicide sentencing review, announcing new statutory aggravating factors, to increase sentences for those horrific crimes.

Although we know that vaping and e-cigarette products can reduce the harms of tobacco smoking in adults, those products are not risk free and there is an alarming popularity of vaping among under-18s, and even among primary-age children. There are concerning reports of schoolchildren becoming addicted to those products, disrupting their sleep patterns, and leaving lessons and even exams to vape. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that the Government are taking action to prevent the promotion and illegal sale of vapes to under-18s, and prosecute those who break the law in that regard?

As my hon. Friend will know, vapes can only legally be sold to those over 18 in this country. We limit nicotine content and refill bottle and tank sizes, and there are also restrictions on labelling and advertising. When there is evidence of any breaches, we expect and I know that law enforcement authorities take that seriously. More generally, given the age group we are talking about, the Department of Health and Social Care is exploring a range of new measures, particularly about addressing youth vaping, and preventing and spreading awareness of the harms.

Last December, I announced Labour’s plan to crack down on antisocial behaviour by forcing fly-tippers to join clean-up squads, and giving victims a voice in choosing the punishments of offenders right across the country. When the Prime Minister copied our policies, why did he shrink them down to just a handful of pilots, leaving most of the country with nothing?

Labour does not have a plan. We are the ones delivering. [Interruption.] I say to the shadow Justice Secretary that actions speak louder than words. Labour Members voted against extra money for police recruitment and they voted against tougher sentences. The Mayor of London wants to decriminalise cannabis. The hon. Gentleman says he agrees with that. The British people would have to be smoking it themselves to vote for them on law enforcement.

If the right hon. Gentleman thinks the Government are doing such a fantastic job on antisocial behaviour, perhaps he could explain this. Since 2014, according to his own Department, offenders who were given community sentences have dodged over 16 million hours of unpaid work that they were sentenced to carry out but never made to do—16 million hours. Why?

Actually, we toughened up community sentences, with community payback and a massive expansion in the number of hours. The use of electronic monitoring has meant that we can be far more secure and crack down harder when conditions are not met. If the hon. Gentleman wants to talk about crime, he can explain this: since 2010, crime has come down. It has more than halved, excluding fraud and computer misuse. Reoffending is lower than under Labour by 7%. We have also seen a massive reduction in the number of prison absconds. He talks a good game; we deliver.

T2. In 2015, my constituent’s brother was brutally and senselessly murdered. The perpetrators were convicted and sent to prison. One remains in prison serving a life sentence. The family were devastated to find out that he had been moved to Rochester prison, less than three miles from where the family and extended family live and work, and close to the brother’s grave. This is causing the family great distress, as an exclusion order was placed on the other perpetrator who is now on parole. Will my right hon. Friend meet me and the family to discuss the impact it is having and the distress it is causing to a local grieving family? (904368)

I thank my right hon. Friend. All our sympathies are with her constituents and the family. I will, of course, be very happy to meet her.

The Casey report reminds us that we must be alive to racism not only in the police, but in the whole justice system. Will Ministers engage with and act on a significant report by Manchester University and a Crown court judge, which found that racial bias plays a significant role in the justice system, including discrimination by judges? The report made a series of constructive suggestions to address this issue.

I will certainly take a look at the Manchester academic report the hon. Gentleman refers to. I know, through my work with His Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service and the senior judiciary, that they are very mindful of the issue he raises. It is important. Equally, we need to ensure that we are rigorous and colourblind to all crimes, and ensure that the rule of law applies across all communities. That is the best way to make sure we strengthen and reinforce public confidence in the justice system.

T8. Antisocial behaviour is a source of huge frustration, irritation and inconvenience for many of our constituents so I welcome Government action, but I have to say that we have heard announcements like this before. Will the Secretary of State ensure that the justice system’s response on antisocial behaviour becomes more effective, so that this week’s announcement can make a real difference to people’s lives? (904376)

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right and that is the focus of what the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister announced. For example, in the initial 10 police and crime commissioner areas, the ambition is for offenders to be doing reparatory work—for example, litter picking or cleaning up graffiti—in their communities within 48 hours of an offence. The powers to allow the police to drug test for a wider range of drugs, including methamphetamine, will give communities a sense of reassurance that action is being taken.

T3.   Last week, a supervising officer at HMP Wormwood Scrubs was brutally attacked a matter of yards from the prison entrance. The Prison Officers Association tells me—the right hon. Member for Rochester and Strood (Kelly Tolhurst) will be concerned about this—that last week an officer leaving Rochester Prison was threatened by an ex-prisoner. He was told he would be shot and his house burnt down. I am sure the Minister will join me in wishing a speedy recovery to the officer who was hurt, but we need more than that. What is the Ministry of Justice doing to ensure that prison officers, who have a difficult job, are safe coming and going from work? (904369)

I echo the hon. Gentleman’s good wishes for the victim. He is absolutely right about the importance of the safety and security for our prison officers. Things such as the rolling out of body-worn video cameras are an important part of that, along with the sensible use of PAVA spray, which I know the POA wants.

I am not sure that I can respond in quite the same style as my right hon. Friend. During the pandemic, being able to do certain tasks remotely or from home was a way of carrying on with unpaid work. But in general, we expect people to turn up and do that work, usually, in a group setting.

T4.   In January I told the Justice Secretary about my constituent, who was a victim of historical child sexual exploitation, having her trial postponed three times since 2019. She is still waiting. I also asked him if he would tell me what proportion of historical CSE cases were delayed by up to four years, and I am still waiting for an answer. Will he please answer me now? (904370)

The hon. Lady raises a very serious issue. Particularly complex cases have been delayed because of the pandemic, the backlogs and the Criminal Bar Association strike. I am happy to write to her about that, and I apologise for not having done so already. In addition, if she would like to meet the victims Minister, he will be happy to talk her through the issues.

Thank you for your generosity in allowing me to ask this question, Mr Speaker. My constituent Joanna Brown, a wife, mother of two children and daughter of loving parents, was brutally murdered in my constituency back in 2010. Her husband was convicted of the murder and was sentenced to 24 years. Sadly, it seems that he will be let out on licence in November. May I urge the Justice Secretary to ask the parole board to question whether such offenders should come out of prison?

My hon. Friend raises a terrible and tragic case. He knows that I recently met Joanna’s mother, Diana Parkes, and Joanna’s closest friend Hetti Barkworth-Nanton, who are co-founders of the Joanna Simpson Foundation. They have shown inspirational courage through their grief. I assured them, and I am happy to assure the House, that I will give Mr Brown’s case my closest personal attention. There will be maximum rigour in assessing risk to determine whether to use the new power given to me by the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022. I am happy to arrange for my hon. Friend to meet the relevant Minister if that is useful.

T5. Rather than the Tory bluster on article 8 of the European convention on human rights, does the Secretary of State acknowledge the findings of the Joint Committee on Human Rights that the UK actually has tight restrictions on article 8 rights in deportation cases, often requiring the need to prove very compelling circumstances? (904371)

I am afraid that I do not, but I respect the Committee. There has been pretty rampant abuse of the Human Rights Act 1998 when it comes to deporting foreign national offenders. That is what our Bill of Rights will cure.

The recent investigation into lawfare by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and The Sunday Times revealed how witnesses can be paid vast sums of money—up to £1 million—to appear in British courts. That is illegal in America. Does the Government agree that the payment of such a huge amount of money has the potential to sway witnesses and should be outlawed?

I thank my right hon. Friend for bring that to my attention. It sounds very serious and capable of having a negative and pejorative influence on proceedings. If he writes to me or—even better—comes to see me, I will be happy to look into it further.

T6. The Joint Committee on Human Rights concluded that the UK Government should not proceed with the Secretary of State’s proposed British Bill of Rights, saying:“it weakens rights protections, it undermines the universality of rights, it shows disregard for our international legal obligations”. I realise that his Government show little regard for international legal obligations generally, but what is his response to the JCHR’s recommendations? (904373)

We showed only last week, when we brought together more than 40 countries to give effect to the International Criminal Court mandate to investigate and prosecute war crimes in Ukraine, how we are leading the charge and upholding the international rule of law. That is not helped, however, by abuses of the system, particularly, as suggested by her colleague the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown), foreign national offenders using elastic interpretations of human rights to frustrate a deportation order. That is the ill that we will cure in addition to strengthening quintessential UK rights, such as freedom of speech.

Last year, the Government rightly accepted the Bellamy review’s recommendations on criminal legal aid, one of which was the establishment of an independent advisory board. When will the Government publish the board’s membership and detailed terms of reference?

T7. Only one in 50 rape cases gets to court, and the Secretary of State has already confirmed that it can take over two years to get a prosecution, but what is he doing about rapes following needle or drink spiking? Is he working with clubs on surveillance, scanning and testing? Has he written to the police so that people do not say, “You’re drunk, love”? Has he any idea how many convictions have followed cases of women being raped after being spiked, including by needles? (904375)

I wholeheartedly agree with the hon. Gentleman that this is a serious new category of threat to women. The forensic capabilities are there, and the practice is clearly already illegal, so it is just a question of gathering the evidence to bring cases to court. Police referrals, CPS charges and Crown court receipts in adult rape cases are all up by around 100%.

As my right hon. Friend will know, my private Member’s Bill reforming the process of creating lasting power of attorney passed through this place two weeks ago and is now in the other place. Assuming all goes well, when does he expect it to receive Royal Assent?

While I cannot determine the date of Royal Assent, I reassure my hon. Friend that once the Bill passes through the other House, we would expect it to complete its passage here before the end of the Session.

Too many families are being failed by our broken courts system, including my constituents. With poor handling of domestic abuse allegations, the disregarding of children’s voices, and an obsessive pro-contact culture that puts unfit parents’ demands ahead of the children’s best interests, we need urgent reform. What steps is the Justice Secretary taking to protect vulnerable children and ensure justice for victims?

I take this matter very seriously. Broadly speaking on the family courts, which I think is the crux of the hon. Lady’s question, of course there is a need for safeguarding in getting domestic abuse cases to court—around 55% of cases—but the best way to ensure that they are dealt with effectively is to ensure that the other 45% of cases go through mediation and do not double-dip their way into the courts system.

The concordat on children in custody provides a protocol for the transfer of children out of custody and into local authority accommodation, yet many police forces and local authorities have not signed up to it and too many children are being detained in custody, even after being charged. Why is that the case, and what is the Minister going to do to address it?

Huge efforts have been made to try to ensure, where possible, that we divert young people from the criminal justice system. The hon. Lady should know that the number of children in custody has fallen by 68% in the past decade. At the end of January this year, 438 children were in custody—down from 1,349 in January 2013—but we are also considering other measures, such as secure schools, to ensure that we can deal with all such cases appropriately.

Has the Secretary of State seen “The Gold”, the gripping but disturbing BBC series about the Brink’s-Mat robbery? If he has, does he feel that justice has been served? Is there any more justice to come?

I have to say that I have not seen it, but now that “Love Island” is over I shall transition seamlessly to the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion.

Has the Minister made an assessment of the number of wills and estates that are disputed over assets each year in the United Kingdom? What discussions has he had with the devolved Assemblies about the timescales for solving such issues?

I am not aware of any particular statistics on the number of wills that are contested, but I will write to the hon. Gentleman and ensure that we liaise with the devolved Assemblies.