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Topical Questions

Volume 737: debated on Tuesday 12 September 2023

I have been asked to reply on behalf of the Lord Chancellor, who has been in Riga attending a Council of Europe meeting, where a political declaration was signed on support for the Ukrainian justice system. He is sorry not to be here for these oral questions, and he has asked me to convey to the House his thanks to the Metropolitan police for their quick work in finding and returning Daniel Khalife to custody. The independent investigation that the Lord Chancellor commissioned must now get to the bottom of this serious breach. Since the last oral questions, the Government have also announced that we will make whole life orders the expectation in sentencing where they can be applied. We have also outlined plans to order the worst offenders to attend court for their sentencing hearings. We want to ensure that the worst offenders receive their sentences in the full glare of the courtroom, and that victims have the opportunity to set out the impact the crime has had on them.

With Government spending for housing legal aid falling in the past decade from £44 million to £20 million and the spending for disrepair cases falling from nearly £4 million to just over £1 million, it is not a moment too soon that the Government have begun to restore some legal aid with the housing loss prevention advice service. Due to the Government’s disastrous Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, many housing legal aid providers shut up shop, leaving 42% of the population of England and Wales without a single provider in their local authority area and 84% with no access to welfare legal aid. What recent analysis has the Minister made of legal aid deserts, and what steps is he taking to remedy the situation?

We are putting more money into legal aid and criminal legal aid following the independent review. Specifically on housing, which the hon. Lady mentioned, we are injecting an additional £10 million from 1 August.

T3. What conversations has my right hon. Friend had across government to make sure that the sentencing for those convicted of dangerous cycling is equalised with the sentencing guidelines for those convicted of dangerous driving? (906355)

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, who I know takes a keen interest in this issue. The safety of our roads is a key objective for the Government, and protecting all road users is a priority. Like all road users, cyclists have a duty to behave in a safe and responsible manner. While laws are in place for cyclists, they are old and it can be difficult to successfully prosecute offences. That is why Department for Transport colleagues are considering bringing forward legislation to introduce new offences concerning dangerous cycling to tackle those rare instances where victims have been killed or seriously injured by irresponsible cycling behaviour.

I thank the Minister for the update about Daniel Khalife, but the fact remains that HMP Wandsworth has been a known problem for the best part of a decade, with a litany of failures including overcrowding, staffing and security issues. Khalife is not even the first escape from Wandsworth; there was an incident in 2019, which the chief inspector of prisons said was the result of a “serious security breach”. Why, after so many warnings about Wandsworth, have the Government failed to act?

We take these matters extremely seriously. The independent investigation will of course look at the question the hon. Lady raised specifically about the 2019 incident to ensure that lessons were learned. If we look at the independent review of progress from His Majesty’s inspectorate, we see that progress has been made in Wandsworth, particularly on staffing, which I know has rightly been a matter of considerable public interest. There has been an increase of some 25% in staffing specifically at Wandsworth since 2017.

Years of warnings and years of inaction—I am afraid that rather sums the Government up. On Sunday, the Justice Secretary told us that 40 prisoners have been moved from Wandsworth, claiming that that was out of “an abundance of caution”. Will the Minister tell us how many other prisoners will have to be moved across the whole prison estate as a result of this escape? What the public want to see is not an abundance of caution after the fact of an escape but an abundance of certainty that the prison estate is secure. Is it?

It is. The hon. Lady would not expect me to get into a running commentary on transfer arrangements when we are talking about security. I want to reassure her, the House and the public that escapes from prisons are very rare, and much rarer now than they used to be. The number of escapes from prison in the last 13 years—since 2010—is considerably lower than it was in the 13 years before.

T5.   To encourage active travel, people need to feel confident using our roads, yet the courts can impose only the same penalties on multiple offenders as on a first-timer. Will my right hon. Friend consider the introduction of escalating penalties for repeat traffic offences? (906357)

My hon. Friend is right to highlight the issue of traffic offences. As part of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022, there was an increase in the minimum disqualification periods for the serious offence of causing death by careless driving when under the influence of drink or drugs from two years to five years, and an increase from three to six years if there is a repeat offence within three years. The Department for Transport is also currently considering a broader call for evidence on motoring offences. I hope that the very recent report from the all-party parliamentary group for cycling and walking will be useful to it in that respect. I will ensure that colleagues at the DFT are aware of her interest in this issue.

T2. As the absurdity of terrorist offenders in low category prisons plays out, is it not time to free up space by removing Julian Assange from Belmarsh maximum security facility, where he has languished since April 2019, guilty only of a minor bail breach, when his real offence was exposing war crimes? Regardless of his place of incarceration, will the Minister ensure that he is able to attend proceedings in person, which he has been denied since January 2021, given all the comments about people being at court? (906354)

I think the hon. Gentleman has achieved his objective: to get something on the record. I will not comment on ongoing cases, but, speaking more generally, access to justice is at the heart of what we do.

T6.   I have a constituent who suffered life-changing injuries as a result of an assault eight years ago—she is not on her own, on that basis—but she was awarded only £150 from a compensation order during the criminal case and offered £1,000 from the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority. Will the Minister look at amending the Victims and Prisoners Bill so that victims can be given adequate care, compensation from offenders and support through the courts and, importantly, through the CICA? (906359)

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, who throughout her time in the House, and particularly while Home Secretary, has always taken a keen interest in supporting victims of crime. It is vital that victims get the compensation they are entitled to, be that from the offender or the criminal injuries compensation scheme, which paid out more than £173 million in 2022-23. The making of a compensation order is a matter for the court, and there is no limit on the amount that a court can order an offender to pay.

In respect of the criminal injuries compensation scheme, His Majesty’s Government are consulting on changes following the report of the independent inquiry into child sexual abuse alongside previous consultations. It is important that that can be considered fully, but that will be post-passage of the Victims and Prisoners Bill.

T4. One of my constituents tells me that they are at risk of losing their home because of how long they have had to wait for a benefit decision appeal. Will the Minister outline what steps his Department is taking to reduce the current 33-week waiting time for benefit decision appeals to be heard? (906356)

Across the whole tribunal process, the team will constantly monitor who is performing and who is not, and will share best practice. If the hon. Lady would like to write to me with the details of a particular case, I can investigate the particular cause of delay.

T7.   Parliament passed a law in 2015 that offenders convicted of a second or subsequent knife offence should go to prison, yet in the year to March, 16,000 such offenders—37% of the total—dodged a jail sentence altogether. That is the highest total since the law was introduced. Will Ministers ensure that the courts now hand down the sentences legislated for in this House eight years ago? (906360)

My hon. Friend is right to highlight the scourge of knife crime and the need for tough sentences. Although sentencing in an individual case is a matter for our independent judiciary, which is able to consider the specific circumstances of individual cases, in legislating on this issue Parliament was clear about its seriousness. That is reflected in average sentences for all types of knife crime, which are up from 6.5 months in 2010 to 8.1 months in 2020. In addition, 87% of those committing repeat offences were given a custodial sentence, including suspended sentences, which are a custodial sentence.

I have a number of constituents whose asylum appeals were allowed by courts and tribunals service, but have now been thrust into limbo while the case goes back to the Home Office for approval. What conversations have Ministers had with their Home Office colleagues on clearing the backlog that is preventing my constituents from getting on with their lives?

I am always happy to look at individual cases to see if there are specific issues causing a delay. Broadly speaking, I work with colleagues at the Home Office and the Solicitor General’s office to see what we can do to ensure that any delays in the process are smoothed out, so that people do not have to wait for their day in court.

T9. What review, if any, has the Department carried out to ensure that when courts extend bail, they ensure that the police are dealing with their investigations diligently and expeditiously? (906362)

My hon. Friend raises an important point for her constituents. I must stress that the independence of the judiciary is fundamental to the rule of law and the running of the justice system. Therefore, the Department has not and will not conduct a review into how the judiciary undertakes its functions in individual cases. However, I can reassure her that the judiciary ensures that the relevant agencies that it works with undertake their functions smoothly and effectively.

Is it not the case that last-minute cancellations in magistrates courts are largely caused by the inability to recruit and retain legal advisers, who are paid a lot less than other Government legal advisers? What steps will the Minister take to ensure an increase in wages and better terms and conditions for those legal advisers? Will he sit down with the PCS Union to try to resolve this intolerable situation?

We look carefully at why all cases are vacated; in fact, the biggest cause of vacation is often the non-availability of prosecution or defence counsel, not of legal executives.

May I put it to Ministers that the nine-month wait for granting simple probate is unfair on people trying to sell their parents’ home? I failed to get the probate service to work, and I have a constituent who has written to the Prime Minister. Will Ministers please sort it out?

The time taken once all required documents are received is between six and nine weeks. We always advise that no one should take a decision on the sale of a property until probate is granted, but I can reassure my hon. Friend that despite a significant increase in applications, the service is recruiting and training up more than 100 new caseworkers to ensure that it delivers the service that my hon. Friend wants, as do I.

Last month the United Nations called for an urgent Government review of sentences of imprisonment for public protection. Will the Secretary of State listen to the UN? Can he explain why the number of people with an IPP sentence recalled to prison without committing any further offence has soared in recent years?

I can confirm that the Lord Chancellor and I—and us all—are very conscious of the difficulties around IPP sentences, which would not be introduced today. We abolished them, as the hon. Lady knows, but there are people in prison who have been recalled or not released by the parole board because they have not been considered safe for release. Our objective is to help to manage people towards safe release into the community. To that end, our recently announced action plan is central.

The rehabilitation of offenders is so important in reducing the chances of them committing crime once released from prison, especially if they can get back into work. Could the Minister outline any schemes that help to give offenders the skills they need, and how they can access companies that are willing to give them a second chance in life?

My hon Friend is so right. In topical questions, I do not have the time to start to unpack all the different things I would like say, so I will not. Suffice it to say that brilliant companies are providing training opportunities.

I have written to the Secretary of State about the tragic case of my young constituent Gregg McGuire. He has agreed to meet with me and I am very grateful. Does his Department have any plans to reassess the current rules which mean that victims’ families are unable to appeal sentences for those convicted of causing death by careless driving?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady. I know she is meeting the Secretary of State to discuss this matter and I do not want to pre-empt that meeting. If she wishes, I am very happy to join that meeting with her, or even to meet her separately to talk about this issue if she feels that would be helpful.

Mr Speaker, you will not believe this, but it is almost six months since I finally secured a meeting with the Justice Minister and the Health Minister, after six cancellations, about what happened to section 4 of my Civil Partnerships, Marriages and Deaths (Registration etc) Act 2019, which empowers coroners to investigate stillbirths. I was assured that the law, passed by this House in February 2019 and with a consultation that closed in June 2019, would be published imminently and progress would be made, but nothing has happened. Is it ever going to happen?

The scale of the illegal drugs problem in prisons was such that five years ago the Government introduced a programme that cost £100 million. Has the problem got worse or improved in the time since?

We are seeing progress. It is a combined approach of drug recovery wings and incentivised subsidised free living, and ensuring that security is able to stop drugs getting into prison through things like x-ray body scanners, which we have deployed in many prisons.

It is perhaps unfortunate that many members of the public and much of the media only take an interest in prisons when there is an escape, but that is, thankfully, very rare. Will my right hon. Friend join me in hoping to now see a calm and measured public debate about the role of prisons, not least working out ways to improve rehabilitation, which ultimately protects the public.

My hon. Friend is exactly right. He has a long history with this issue since before he reached this House. It is, ultimately, all about rehabilitation, reducing reoffending and helping to keep the public safe.

Over 10,000 women have signed a public letter to the Prime Minister asking him to take action against the escalating campaign of threats and intimidation against women who stand up for women’s rights. Many of these women are particularly concerned that the institutions supposed to protect them are failing to do so, including the criminal justice system. Will the Minister with responsibility for victims be good enough to meet me and representatives of those who organised the letter to discuss this important issue?

The reputation of our justice system depends on the independence, integrity and professionalism of our judges. At the end of this month, the right hon. Lord Burnett of Maldon will retire as Lord Chief Justice, to be succeeded by Dame Susan Carr, who will be the first ever female Lord Chief Justice. Will the Minister place on the record in this House his appreciation, and all our appreciation, of Lord Burnett for the exceptional leadership he has shown to the judiciary throughout his term in office?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I know the Lord Chief Justice and I am very happy, on behalf of His Majesty’s Government and all those on the Government Front Bench, to do exactly as my hon. Friend says: to pay tribute to Lord Burnett’s exemplary period as Lord Chief Justice.

I would like to pay tribute to the campaigners who challenged joint enterprise. As a result, the Crown Prosecution Service has now committed to monitor who is prosecuted. I welcome the report at the end of this month, but will the Minister commit to an audit of all joint enterprise convictions, particularly as more black people are disproportionately impacted?

I can commit to wait until we have seen what the work being done by the CPS uncovers. Once we have data, we can then have a rational discussion on the next steps.

Is the Minister aware of the prevalence of the unfounded and unscientific concept of parental alienation within our family courts? It is causing suffering and, in some cases, violence against women and girls. What steps is the Department taking to ensure that the courts recognise the harm of this discredited concept?

The Department is well aware of the concerns, which is why the matter is currently under review. The results of that review, including publication of all the data and research behind the outcomes, will be published later this year.