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Topical Questions

Volume 743: debated on Tuesday 9 January 2024

I thank the many His Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service and His Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service staff who continue to work hard over the Christmas period to deliver justice and keep us safe. Since the last Justice questions, the Victims and Prisoners Bill has passed its Third Reading in this House. It will enshrine the overarching principles of the victims code in law. It will establish a permanent independent public advocate for victims of major incidents, and it will enable a second check on Parole Board decisions in the interests of public safety. The Sentencing Bill, which is cracking down on the worst offenders by extending whole-life orders for any murder involving sexual or sadistic conduct, also passed its Second Reading, as did the Criminal Justice Bill, which will ensure, among other things, that criminals face up to the consequences of their appalling actions by requiring them to attend their sentencing hearings.

Finally, in December, I took part in a park run at HMP Onley alongside prison staff and serving prisoners. Congratulations to all who took part, except perhaps my private secretary, who had the audacity to beat me.

The Minister mentions sexual offences, but it frustrates me beyond belief that my constituents have to wait on average 839 days for their cases to be heard. Is the distress caused taken into account, or is the system too broken?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to raise the issue of victims of serious sexual offences. We take that incredibly seriously, and that is why we have introduced measures such as section 28, which enables evidence to be taken and recorded in advance. We have increased the fees for barristers to make that more straightforward. We have also increased the number of independent sexual violence advisers, who accompany, as it were, those victims on that journey. That is very important to prevent dropout rates. This is an important point: the sentencing levels are much higher—up by 30% compared with 2010.

T2. I draw the attention of the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests in that my wife is an education lawyer. Parents appealing decisions in relation to education, health and care plans and health needs are forced to wait between nine months and 13 months from appeal registration to hearing. That is far too long in terms of a child’s development. Does my hon. Friend agree with that? Does he also share my concern that some schools are delaying providing education, health and care plans in the knowledge that it will take a year or more to have an appeal? (900820)

My right hon. Friend is right. Despite special educational needs and disabilities appeals and disposals being up by 24% and 29% respectively, I do share his concerns, and systematic reform is required. That is why through the SEND and alternative provision improvement plan, the Department for Education and ourselves will be working hard to ensure that it is improved. I am more than happy to meet my right hon. Friend to go through the details.

The Children’s Commissioner’s report on family contact in the youth estate states that at the weekend, in two young offenders institutes, boys spent only up to one hour outside their cell each day. We can clearly see why that has led to an increase in violence. What is the Minister going to do about it?

It is important to note that, since 2010 when we came into power, the number of under-18s in custody has dropped dramatically. The cohort now in young offenders institutes is, to put it politely, highly complex. We take that extremely seriously and want to ensure there are sufficient staff. We do not give up on people, but it is important to recognise that that cohort will have been convicted of extremely serious offences, and we want to ensure there are sufficient resources to try to get the best out of them.

T3. I recently met the senior coroner for my area about concerns over health services in north Wales and to discuss preventable deaths. As part of that work, he pointed me towards the Preventable Deaths Tracker, set up by Dr Georgia Richards in Oxford. Will the Secretary of State commit to meeting Dr Richards and me to discuss the potential benefits of the tracker? (900821)

My hon. Friend makes a great point. My officials have already met Dr Richards to discuss her work on the tracker and, together with the Chief Coroner’s office, we are exploring with her team how best to share the tracker on the various websites. However, I am more than happy to meet with my hon. Friend and Dr Richards to discuss how we can work together.

T4. Numerous studies have found that the numbers of minoritised and migrant women being held on remand are disproportionately high. For example, 10% of female black and Asian defendants were remanded in custody by magistrates courts, compared with 7% of white women. What steps are the Government taking to address those clear inequalities in the use of remand? (900822)

I am grateful to the hon. Lady; she will be aware of the work being done across the criminal justice system through both the race disparity review and the Lammy review in that context. Decisions on remand are taken by the judiciary, so it would be wrong for me to comment on judicial decisions, but I am happy to meet her to discuss this further if that would be helpful, and so is the Minister for disparity in the justice system, my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Mike Freer).

T5. Can the Secretary of State confirm that the Director of Public Prosecutions could take over a private prosecution and discontinue it? (900823)

The Crown Prosecution Service can take over any criminal prosecution. It may then carry out the prosecution or it may end or discontinue the prosecution if it does not believe it should have been brought in the first place.

T6.   I am pleased to say that the latest Scottish crime and justice survey has shown that the volume of crime in Scotland, including incidents not reported to the police, has fallen by 53%. In addition, we have one of the lowest levels of recorded crime in Scotland since 1974—50 years. I add my thanks to all those who work in Police Scotland Tayside for their duty and service on behalf of my constituents in Dundee. Will the Justice Secretary join me in congratulating Police Scotland and all the community safety partners who have contributed to that success? (900824)

We of course welcome any reduction in crime, and I am happy to congratulate Police Scotland on its work. It is encouraging that across the United Kingdom, and certainly across England and Wales, crime and reoffending are down. However, I urge the hon. Gentleman to ensure that Scotland does not anything that would be regrettable, such as rolling back on jury trials, which are a critical part of maintaining public confidence in the criminal justice system.

T8. Having worked in A&E at Christmas over the years, I have seen the outcome of alcohol-related violence and the injuries it causes. I know the Department has been looking at fitting alcohol monitoring tags for offenders during the festive season; what assessment have the Government made of their effectiveness in reducing alcohol-fuelled crime? (900827)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that point. Alcohol tags are hugely valuable and are being used increasingly to tackle alcohol-related offending, including violent crime, successfully. Around 2,800 individuals were wearing an alcohol tag at the end of November 2023, 900 more than in the same period the year before, and alcohol bans imposed in community sentences were complied with for 97.3% of the days monitored since their introduction in October 2020. They are a vital crime-fighting tool.

T9. In May 2022, my constituent Tallulah Cox was diagnosed with brain stem cancer. She was left catatonic from the radiation treatment, a side effect that her parents, Zoe and Richard, were never informed about. They then had to fight constantly for the support and care that she needed from her local council and NHS. That support never came. Little Tallulah passed away on 2 November last year— (900828)

Order. This is topical questions. I have to get everybody else in. If the hon. Lady is going to ask a topical question, it must be short and quick to allow others to ask theirs. Has the Minister been briefed on what is being asked?

Little Tallulah passed away aged two on 2 November last year after those services failed her. How can her parents get some justice?

This sounds like an absolutely appalling case and my heart goes out to Tallulah and her family. I am unaware of the details of the case, but if the hon. Lady writes to me, she will get a response.

Dozens of businesses have signed up to Torbay Council’s safety of women at night charter, which is being championed by Councillor Hayley Tranter. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that those who pose a threat to women, for example by spiking drinks, get the type of deterrent sentence that such disgraceful behaviour deserves?

I congratulate Torbay Council and Councillor Tranter on their excellent work to keep women safe in Torbay. Spiking is a disgusting crime that carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison depending on the harm that results. We are changing the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 to define the offence of spiking specifically and comprehensively in law, with a view to encouraging more people to come forward. However, the biggest barrier to conviction remains the fact that toxicology tests are often conducted after the substance has left a woman’s body. That is why we are investing in research for rapid drinks testing kits so that spiking will be easier to prove and we get more of the offenders behind bars.

My constituent was the victim of a violent attack, but because the perpetrator got a sentence of less than 12 months, she was not told when he was released from prison. The police say that it is impossible for them to go through the records of everybody who is released in order to advise her, so there is a gap in victim support. Will the Secretary of State commit to resolving that?

The hon. Lady raises an important point. I take that extremely seriously. Certainly, under the victims code, the rights of victims to be kept informed are far tighter than ever they used to be. If we need to go further, that seems to be a sensible conversation and I would be happy to have it.

For too many years, this House has been witness to wrongful convictions in the Post Office-Fujitsu scandal. There remain 800 Post Office convictions based on bad data. Until those convictions are overturned, the victims cannot claim compensation. We could do something good together if the Justice Secretary brought a simple Bill to quash all 800 convictions immediately.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, who, with his customary precision, puts his finger on that appalling injustice. The suggestion that he makes is receiving active consideration. I expect to be able to make further announcements shortly.

I add my support to the comments made by the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Julie Marson). Cuckooing is a terrible activity, and making it a specific crime not only makes sense but would, I suspect, lead to the prosecution of other crimes such as drug dealing.

As I indicated, I will have a conversation with my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Julie Marson) about that. There is very likely to be a substantive underlying offence, be it handling stolen goods, possession with intent to supply or firearms matters. This has been considered by way of discussions with criminal justice partners, but if there are further matters to consider with my hon. Friend, and indeed with the hon. Gentleman, I would be happy to have those conversations.

January is often considered family breakdown month. Anybody taking the terrifically difficult decision to separate this year will face not only a divorce costing over £14,000 on average, but months, or potentially more than a year, of resolving child and financial disputes. We need reform of focus in a range of areas. Will the Lord Chancellor kindly agree to meet me and the formidable Baroness Deech and Baroness Shackleton to look at our campaigns?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. I know that she campaigns tirelessly on this issue. I am more than happy to arrange a meeting with my noble Friend Lord Bellamy, who leads on this issue, to update her and the noble Baroness Deech—

To reduce reoffending we need a strong, locally focused and stand-alone probation service—similar to how things were before privatisation—so why are the Government moving in the opposite direction with their One HMPPS programme, which has triggered a formal dispute with the probation unions because it subsumes probation still further into prisons?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question; it is nice to answer questions from him again, as I did when he was shadow Secretary of State.

The One HMPPS programme is about different parts of the system working well together to create a system that delivers the outcomes that society wants to see. I take the opportunity, prompted by the hon. Gentleman, to pay tribute to all the staff in the probation service. I had the pleasure of visiting some of them in Southwark recently, and I pay tribute to all the work they are doing.

In a perfect world, the victims of the Horizon IT scandal would have their cases individually assessed by the Criminal Cases Review Commission and the Court of Appeal, but we are not in a perfect world. The scale of the miscarriage of justice is enormous, and there are hundreds of victims who understandably do not want to come forward because they have lost faith in the process. Will my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor now consider the exceptional and unique step of legislating to quash the convictions?

I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend, who speaks with such authority. The circumstances are truly exceptional. When I was a Back Bencher, I went on the record as saying that Horizon is the most serious miscarriage of justice since the Guildford Four or the Birmingham Six. But the clue is that there were four in the Guildford case and six in the Birmingham case; we are talking about hundreds of people. The situation is truly exceptional and unprecedented, and it will need an appropriate resolution.

Under the Illegal Migration Act 2023, victims of human trafficking who arrived in the UK via irregular routes would not have legal recourse to receive support under modern slavery provisions. Are Ministers comfortable with that? They do not look like monsters, so I assume not. If they are not, what will they do about it?

I will have to write to the hon. Gentleman and check exactly what the provisions are for legal aid under the Illegal Migration Act. I am more than happy to provide him with the details and meet him if necessary.

Precisely because legislating to overturn convictions would be so unprecedented, will my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor make sure that before such a step is taken, he is satisfied from conversations with the senior judiciary that the means of triaging and consolidating appeals that currently exist may not be capable of delivering justice within an acceptable timeframe?

That is precisely the point, and my hon. Friend has put his finger on it. Of course, we would not want to stray into the normal lane of the judiciary; we have huge respect for our independent judiciary, who do an exceptionally good job of ensuring that there is fairness on the facts before them. As I have said, the case is wholly unprecedented, and we will want to have exhausted all alternatives before taking radical action.

Spending on housing legal aid has fallen by more than half in the past decade, from £44 million to £20 million. Is this a proper response to growing insecurity, overcrowding and poor conditions in the housing market, or might it be a contributing factor?

I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that just last year we invested an extra £10 million in housing legal aid, so I think we are addressing the issue.