COMMONS

Today's House of Commons debates - Tuesday 23 January 2018

Version: Uncorrected | Updated 20:31

House of Commons

Tuesday 23 January 2018

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock

Prayers

[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Justice

The Secretary of State was asked—

Leaving the EU: Legal Systems

1.

What assessment his Department has made of the effect of the UK leaving the EU on the operation of the legal system in each legal jurisdiction in the UK.[903483]

4.

What assessment his Department has made of the effect of the UK leaving the EU on the operation of the legal system in each legal jurisdiction in the UK.[903486]

13.

What plans the Government have to ensure that the UK legal system continues to operate effectively after the UK leaves the EU.[903496]

The Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor (Mr David Gauke):

The Government have made it a priority to ensure that there is a smooth legal transition both in our negotiations with the EU and in our domestic implementing legislation. I fully appreciate that Scotland and Northern Ireland have distinct legal systems, and that is why my Department has been working closely with the devolved Administrations, looking at how our legal and justice systems are affected by EU exit. The Government are clear that a good deal with the EU will be one that works for all parts of the United Kingdom.

Neil Gray:

I welcome the new Secretary of State to his position, having shadowed him for a few months when he was Secretary of State for Work and Pensions.

The UK Government’s position papers on judicial co-operation in civil matters, data protection and judicial oversight have been dismissed by EU interlocutors as unsatisfactory, due to their lack of realism and detail. Does the Secretary of State intend to respond to that by producing more realistic and detailed proposals?

Mr Gauke:

First, I thank the hon. Gentleman for his words. It is pleasing to know that, wherever I go, he follows.

Regarding the hon. Gentleman’s question, we are ambitious—we want to get the best deal. I appreciate that, in the course of negotiations, it is possible that our interlocutors will express an adverse opinion, but we will continue to engage and to be ambitious.

Drew Hendry:

The Secretary of State has acknowledged Scotland’s distinct legal and judicial system. The role of Lord Advocate in overseeing the investigation and prosecution of crime means that, in Scotland, there is direct co-operation between Scottish law enforcement agencies and their European counterparts. Will the Minister give details of the consultations between his Department, and the Scottish Government and Scottish Law Officers in that regard?

Mr Gauke:

We continue to engage with the Scottish Government across the board, including on that implementation matter.

Ben Bradley:

Will the Minister update the House on plans in relation to foreign criminals in UK prisons and on whether, after we leave the EU, we might be able to return those who break our laws to their country of origin, rather the UK taxpayer footing the bill for their stay at Her Majesty’s pleasure?

Mr Gauke:

Since 2010, we have removed more than 40,000 foreign national offenders from our prisons, immigration removal centres and indeed the community. There is a range of removal mechanisms that enable the return of foreign offenders to their home countries. The Government are now considering future criminal justice arrangements with the EU with the aim of continuing our close working relationship.

Kate Green (Stretford and Urmston) (Lab):

The Secretary of State will be aware that in family law there are mutual and reciprocal arrangements between EU countries to ensure that judgments are recognised and enforced. How does he envisage the interests of children being protected after we exit the EU and are no longer able to rely on those mutual arrangements?

Mr Gauke:

The hon. Lady raises an important point. Having satisfactory arrangements with the European Union in that and other matters is important. It is right that we are ambitious so that the interests of children are put at the heart of what we do.

Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con):

I welcome my right hon. Friend to his post—it is nice to see a lawyer there. I hope that he has a lengthy tenure, if not quite as long as that of the last lawyer from Ipswich who was Lord Chancellor, and with a better ending.

Much of the debate has been concentrated on criminal justice co-operation. In his speech on being sworn in, my right hon. Friend rightly referred to the importance of the UK as a jurisdiction of choice in civil and commercial litigation. Will he make sure that that aspect is not lost in our negotiations, in particular the importance to London and the UK’s financial services sector of having contractual certainty?

Mr Gauke:

I thank my hon. Friend. Given that the last Lord Chancellor from Ipswich was Cardinal Wolsey, who ran into some difficulties in negotiations with a powerful European supranational body, I should tread carefully. It is important that in our negotiations we try as best we can to provide the certainty my hon. Friend seeks.

Joanna Cherry (Edinburgh South West) (SNP):

I welcome the new Secretary of State for Justice to his place. Sir David Edward, a distinguished former judge in Scotland and at the European Court of Justice, has said that so far

“the UK Government has overlooked the significance of the separate Scottish legal system, the Scottish judicial system and the Scottish prosecution system in relation to justice and home affairs issues”

in their negotiations with the EU. Will the new Secretary of State undertake to meet me to discuss how those oversights might be rectified?

Mr Gauke:

I am not sure that I would accept the hon. and learned Lady’s characterisation of the position as one of oversight. I made it clear in the very first answer I gave in this role that I fully appreciate that Scotland had a distinct legal system. However, I would certainly be delighted to discuss the matter with her further.

Joanna Cherry:

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for agreeing to meet me, but that was not my characterisation; it was the characterisation of a senior judge in the Scottish courts and in the Court of Justice. The judge went on to describe the UK Government’s paper on enforcement and dispute resolution as

“an undergraduate essay which would have failed”.

He says that those who are writing the papers are not aware of the problems posed by the separate Scottish legal system and that they do not want to hear from the experts who have offered to help. This is a serious problem. Will the Secretary of State, in his new role, undertake to listen to those who know about the Scottish legal system and to take on board their concerns in his negotiations on these matters?

Mr Gauke:

I want to ensure that we end up in a position that is good for the legal system and legal services in every part of the United Kingdom. That certainly includes Scotland, and of course I will want to engage with representations and representatives from all parts of the United Kingdom to ensure that we get the best possible deal.

Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con):

After Brexit, can we do something that we cannot do now? In other words, if an EU national is found guilty of an imprisonable offence, will we be able to deport them to serve their sentence in prison in their own country and ban them from ever returning?

Mr Gauke:

As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley), we are considering future criminal justice arrangements with the European Union. We want close working relationships, but we also need to work together to ensure that foreign national offenders can be removed when possible.

Homelessness Reduction Act 2017

2.

What progress he has made on implementing his duties under the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017.[903484]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Rory Stewart):

I should like to begin by paying tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) for his work on the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017. With the agreement of colleagues from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, the Act should come into operation in April. It is absolutely vital that every prisoner leaving custody as a home to go to.

Bob Blackman:

I thank my hon. Friend and welcome him to his new position. As he rightly says, it is in our best interest that ex-offenders leaving prison do not reoffend. One of the key issues is to ensure that prison governors honour their commitment under the Homelessness Reduction Act to ensure that people are prepared for life outside prison. What action will he take to ensure that prison governors train offenders who are due to leave prison so that they do not reoffend?

Rory Stewart:

There are two key things to do: first, to empower governors so that they have real flexibility and control over education budgets and career advice; and, secondly, to connect that to housing. There is an obligation under the Act that my hon. Friend has championed, and co-ordination with local authorities will be essential.

Ruth Cadbury (Brentford and Isleworth) (Lab):

Why has the number of women who become homeless on release doubled in only a year? Is this not more evidence of the Government failing prisoners and probation policies?

Rory Stewart:

There are a number of complex issues relating to homelessness, but we absolutely agree that this is unacceptable and shocking. We need to work much more closely with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, with local authorities and with prisons to ensure that we cut those numbers.

Legal Aid

3.

What steps he is taking to ensure that legal aid is available to people who are entitled to that aid.[903485]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Lucy Frazer):

The provision of legal aid to support the most vulnerable is an important part of our justice system. We spend £1.6 billion a year on legal aid, which is more than a fifth of the Ministry of Justice’s budget. In terms of accessing legal aid, there is an online tool at gov.uk to help people to check their entitlement to it.

Derek Thomas:

I welcome that answer, but people in my constituency in west Cornwall find it hard to access the legal aid that they are entitled to. In fact, there is only one office there that holds a legal aid contract, and it deals only with family law. Will the Department assess how the changes in legal aid funding have affected rural people, and consider measures to address the shortage?

Lucy Frazer:

Maintaining access to justice is extremely important, which is why the Legal Aid Agency regularly reviews the capacity of the legal aid market to cope with demand and takes action when regional shortfalls develop. Those in need of urgent advice in Cornwall and elsewhere can always use the civil legal aid specialist telephone service. In autumn 2017, the Legal Aid Agency began national tendering for new civil contracts to start in autumn 2018.

Ellie Reeves (Lewisham West and Penge) (Lab):

I have received hundreds of emails from people in my constituency who face eviction, live in overcrowded conditions or rent properties that are in dire need of repair. Does the Minister agree that early legal advice in housing matters needs to be restored urgently, and that it is unacceptable that large parts of the country have no housing legal aid providers at all?

Lucy Frazer:

As the hon. Lady will know, the previous Lord Chancellor committed to a review of legal aid later this year, and I also commit to reviewing the situation later this year. Legal aid for housing is always available and can be accessed through the telephone gateway.

Yasmin Qureshi (Bolton South East) (Lab):

Judicial review is a key tool for ordinary people to challenge unjust and unlawful decisions by the state and other public bodies. Deep cuts to legal aid have undermined that ability, so will the Minister commit to reviewing legal aid funding for judicial review in the Government’s forthcoming legal aid review?

Lucy Frazer:

As I have already mentioned, a legal aid review is taking place later this year. As a matter of principle, legal aid is available for judicial review in certain circumstances when certain conditions are met.

Oakhill Secure Training Centre

5.

What recent assessment he has made of standards at Oakhill secure training centre in Milton Keynes.[903487]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Dr Phillip Lee):

The findings of a recent Ofsted inspection report on Oakhill secure training centre are completely unacceptable. We took urgent action to address Ofsted’s concerns. The Ministry of Justice’s monitoring team has been carrying out further scrutiny to investigate Ofsted’s findings.

Iain Stewart:

The young people held in the centre often have complex, challenging needs and require considerable intervention to help their rehabilitation. By when can we hope to see some tangible improvement in that intervention?

Dr Lee:

My hon. Friend is spot on. These vulnerable children require the very best care, particularly for their mental health. In negotiations with the main contractor, I rule out absolutely nothing if the contract obligations are not being met.

Mr Speaker:

Order. The right hon. Gentleman needs to focus his supplementary question exclusively on the Oakhill secure training centre in Milton Keynes.

David Hanson:

Absolutely, Mr Speaker. Has the Minister taken any view on reducing the financial arrangements with G4S for running Oakhill or imposed any sanctions? What does it take to lose a contract?

Dr Lee:

The right hon. Gentleman, as a previous Minister responsible for the institution, will acknowledge that the contract is subject to a series of obligations. It was signed in 2004 and lasts for 25 years. I am fully aware of the need to improve standards at Oakhill. I rule absolutely nothing out, and I have already met senior people at G4S to point that out.

Imran Hussain (Bradford East) (Lab):

Oakhill, which is run by G4S, was found last year to make use of high levels of force, but G4S is not the only private security company using high levels of force against vulnerable groups. Today’s report into the Sodexo-run Peterborough Prison shows that it has become the first women’s prison in years to be deemed not safe enough, with high levels of force and the overuse of strip searching, so is the Minister worried that profit is being put before prisoner safety?

Dr Lee:

The children being held at Oakhill can sometimes be extremely challenging, and the staff have to be able to control them to protect not only themselves, but other children and staff. With reference to Sodexo and the report into Peterborough Prison, the situation is not acceptable. We have already engaged with Sodexo, particularly around strip searching, and I expect and have demanded improvements.

Victim Impact Statements

6.

What steps he is taking to support people who make a victim impact statement.[903488]

The Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor (Mr David Gauke):

It is critical that the voice of the victim is heard in the criminal justice system. The victims code is clear that victims are entitled to make a victim personal statement to explain in their own words, to a court or to the Parole Board, how the crime has affected them. We are spending £96 million this year to fund critical support services for victims of crime. Under the code, all victims are entitled to a needs assessment to determine what emotional and practical support they need.

Tom Pursglove:

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that answer. I know from a family in my constituency that making a victim impact statement, and having to do so regularly, is a very stressful and nerve-racking experience. What steps is he taking to ensure that in those situations the victim, rather than the offender, is the priority?

Mr Gauke:

My hon. Friend has raised this with me before. We are committed to making sure that practical and emotional support is in place for victims throughout the criminal justice process, such as by providing independent sexual violence and domestic violence advisers. If victims wish to attend a parole hearing to present their victim personal statement, a Secretary of State representative is allocated to provide support and guidance on the day.

Paula Sherriff (Dewsbury) (Lab):

Steven Mullins was 12 years old when he was abducted, sexually assaulted and brutally murdered on his way home from school. His killer was released last month. Although the family submitted a victim impact statement, they feel extremely let down both by the Parole Board and by the victim liaison service, which have lost their letters, ignored their letters and left so many of their questions unanswered. It appears that a worrying pattern is emerging. Will the Minister please meet me and Mr and Mrs Mullins to give them some of the answers they deserve?

Mr Gauke:

First, I express my sympathy with Mr and Mrs Mullins, who have experienced the most horrendous situation. In the context of another case, I have already made it clear that we need to look again at how the victim support process works. We want to look at that specific case and, more generally, at how we can improve the situation of victims. In this particular case, of course I am willing to meet the hon. Lady and Mr and Mrs Mullins to see if their concerns can be properly addressed.

Mr Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green) (Con):

I welcome my right hon. Friend to his post. In 2009, my constituent Mr Samuel was acquitted of common assault following an unsuccessful prosecution centred on a fabricated witness statement by the police. Since then, his efforts to seek redress through the courts have been frustrated by a cover-up that I believe reaches right to the top of the Crown Prosecution Service. Will my right hon. Friend please accept a meeting with me at his earliest convenience to discuss the real issues concerning this case?

Mr Gauke:

I am happy to meet my right hon. Friend. I am not in a position to comment on that particular case, but I am of course willing to engage with him.

Richard Burgon (Leeds East) (Lab):

I welcome the Secretary of State to his post. Victims must be at the heart of our justice system, but we have seen failings in enabling victims to give their impact statements in the Worboys case. We have seen the police failing victims, and victims are asking why there were no further prosecutions. In fact, victims feel let down throughout the process. I ask the Secretary of State once again to support victims, and to help to restore their faith and that of the wider public in our justice system. Will he agree today to an independent end-to-end review of the whole handling of this case?

Mr Gauke:

As I announced to the House on Friday, Dame Glenys Stacey has agreed to undertake a fact-finding review of what happened with regard to victims in the Worboys case. It is important that we get to the bottom of precisely what happened and whether processes were followed. I am aware of conflicting evidence on that point, so it is important that we pursue it. I quite understand why the hon. Gentleman suggests an end-to-end review, and indeed there are questions that need to be considered about what happened in 2008-09 and so on. As I have said before, at the moment I want to focus on the immediate questions in front of us in terms of support for victims and the Parole Board process.

Zac Goldsmith (Richmond Park) (Con):

The proposed release of John Worboys has absolutely horrified and terrified his many, many victims. Like me, they are appalled to learn today that he has been moved to London’s category A Belmarsh Prison. Will my right hon. Friend assure us that he will do everything in his power to ensure that Worboys is released with strict licence conditions that keep him out of Greater London?

Mr Gauke:

My hon. Friend has been tireless on this matter in recent weeks. The precise conditions are operational matters that are decided at operational level, but let me reassure him that nearly a fortnight ago I wrote to the relevant authorities and stressed the need to ensure that the concerns of victims are at the heart of the process and that the most stringent conditions are applied.

HMP Liverpool

7.

What recent assessment he has made of the condition of prisoners’ accommodation at HMP Liverpool.[903489]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Rory Stewart):

I visited Liverpool prison yesterday. The inspector’s report was genuinely disturbing, and of course that is reflected on the ground. There are some very good prison officers working there, but unfortunately the conditions are really shocking, particularly basic sanitation, with piles of garbage. We now have a new governor in place, millions of pounds are going into the infrastructure, and 172 places have been closed so that we can begin a proper refurbishment and maintenance programme. Most importantly, we must not allow this to happen again.

Rosie Cooper:

These appalling conditions did not emerge overnight. Who will be held to account locally and nationally for failing to implement the recommendations of the many critical reports about the prison? How in 21st century Britain could this national disgrace be allowed to happen? Lack of adequate healthcare meant that lives were lost. What happened to the regulators and the leadership? Were they being paid while asleep?

Rory Stewart:

Those are important questions that we will look at closely. We have published an action plan for Liverpool prison. There are two key things we need to do. The first is about leadership. The governor has now been replaced. The second is that we have put in place a new urgent notification process, so if anything like this happens again and inspectors raise it, we will be forced to reply within 28 days. But that is only the beginning, because this requires a complete change in culture that focuses on getting back to basics: cleaning the prison, reducing the violence, reducing the drugs and making sure the healthcare provision is in place.

20.[903503]

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his new post—the whole House knows of his passion for prisons and prisons policy. Will he hold to account those in the senior echelons of the Prison Service for the disgraceful and appalling conditions in the prison?

Rory Stewart:

This is a big question of management. There are many very hard-working people at Liverpool prison who take their jobs very seriously and work very long hours, but we have to balance that with a recognition that clearly there have been fundamental failings. People will be held to account. Above all, we need to work with the team at the prison to ensure that in future it is a clean and decent place, both to protect the public and to reduce reoffending.

Dan Carden (Liverpool, Walton) (Lab):

I welcome the Minister’s prompt visit to HMP Liverpool in his new role, and to Altcourse prison, which is in my constituency. His action plan states that there will be a full conditional survey and investment proposal for medium-term refurbishment. Given that Walton prison was built in 1855—some 15 years before this Palace was completed—is that the most realistic outcome for the future of the prison?

Rory Stewart:

It is certainly true that there are challenges with older buildings, as we see with this place, but it is possible to keep them going—Westminster Hall was built in 1080. Stafford prison, which was built in the late 18th century, is a clean and decent prison. We will look carefully at the fabric, and in some cases there is reason to build a new wing. But in Liverpool prison we can make a huge difference simply with £2.5 million for new windows and for refurbishing individual cells.

Richard Burgon (Leeds East) (Lab):

The inspectors described the conditions at HMP Liverpool as the worst they have seen, citing rat infestations and filthy conditions. Prison maintenance at Liverpool was outsourced to Amey. This shows that the problems with outsourcing go way beyond Carillion, which mismanaged maintenance at 50 different prisons. Will the Secretary of State commit to a review looking at bringing prison maintenance back in house, in Liverpool and at all prisons, as Labour has pledged to do?

Rory Stewart:

We will look carefully at the maintenance issues in Liverpool, but sadly the problems are not only to do with Amey; they are also to do with relationships between management and the contractors and how prisoners were, or were not, used to clean the estate. We have made a huge amount of difference in just the past five weeks by changing not the Amey contract but the management approach and the focus on cleanliness.

Richard Burgon:

I thank the Minister for his answer on Amey and contractors, but it is hard to have faith that he will address the problems at Liverpool or, in fact, any prison, because it has recently come to light that his Government handed £40 million to Carillion in 2017, even after the then prisons Minister had expressed concerns in Parliament about Carillion’s performance in prisons. Will not poor maintenance in Liverpool continue to contribute to inhumane conditions while responsibility is left in the hands of private contractors who, in reality, put profit first?

Rory Stewart:

We do not believe that this is fundamentally an ideological fight between the private and public sectors. Most of those people working for Carillion—70% of them—were public servants just three years ago, and most of those people working for Amey were public servants in the prison service. Most of the problems have been solved through basic management and leadership. There has been a deep clean, the yard units have been increased from five to 18, and the conditions have improved rapidly. In the end, a lot of this is about management, not a private/public debate.

Offenders: Employment and Education

8.

What steps the Government are taking to improve access for offenders to employment and literacy education.[903491]

12.

What steps the Government are taking to improve access for offenders to employment and education.[903495]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Rory Stewart):

We have been doing three things on education: first, we have been making sure that governors are empowered to bring in their own education providers; secondly, we have been setting minimum standards, particularly on English language learning; and thirdly, through the new futures network, we have been connecting people to jobs.

Mr Speaker:

I call Michael Fabricant; get in there, man.

Michael Fabricant:

I will!

My hon. Friend the Minister knows that 46% of prisoners have a literacy age of only 11. That proportion is three times the national average, which is still too high. Does he agree that that lack of literacy is often the reason why people go to prison in the first place? Will he explain in a bit more detail how we can reduce the illiteracy level so that we do not get reoffending?

Mr Speaker:

Not too much detail.

Rory Stewart:

As the Speaker implies in his reprimand to me, the causes of offending are many and multiple. Literacy is one of them, along with many issues relating to people’s health, education, social background and, indeed, our criminal justice system as a whole. Nevertheless, literacy is key to the reduction of reoffending because it is key to getting a good job. Good education provision in prisons, driven by governors, is going to be key to addressing this issue.

Mr Speaker:

It was a gentle exhortation, I would say.

Mrs Latham:

Can the Minister say anything more about the steps the Government are taking further to empower governors to deliver effective education and training in prisons?

Rory Stewart:

Yes. We have empowered governors by having in place a new procurement contract, which means that we in the Ministry are going to do the central procurement bureaucracy, but the governors will be able to choose who they use to train and educate the prisoners. I saw a good example in Altcourse Prison in Liverpool of how governors are also going to be able to choose which companies to pair with. The excellent work on metal welding that I saw in Altcourse will really contribute to those prisoners getting jobs in the community.

Helen Jones (Warrington North) (Lab):

Does the Minister agree that whatever plans he comes up with will require there to be enough prison officers on the estate so that they can release prisoners from their cells and take them to education and training classes? Does he now accept that the Government’s dash to reduce the number of prison officers has seriously hampered the chances of preventing prisoners from reoffending?

Rory Stewart:

Among the many challenges that face education in prisons is the issue of numbers, which is why we have now committed to having 2,500 more prison officers on the estate, and we are delivering that ahead of target. That will allow us to have in place the key-worker programmes, in which each officer will be paired with six prisoners to guide them through the process.

Mr Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP):

Does the Minister accept that there are some good examples of literacy classes in prisons and reoffending rates thereby reducing? Will he undertake to ensure that best practice from throughout the United Kingdom is replicated so that reoffending rates fall across the UK?

Rory Stewart:

That is absolutely true. An enormous number of programmes have huge success in reducing reoffending. For example, in Brixton prison, the Clink programme has reduced reoffending by 43%, but we can do much more to learn the lessons and have a proper standardised document that takes what works elsewhere and drives it through the entire system.

Andrew Selous (South West Bedfordshire) (Con):

In order to encourage more businesses to take on ex-offenders, the Government need to lead by example and not just by exhortation. The Ban the Box initiative was brought in across Government a few years ago to encourage that. How is ex-offender employment going within Government and the public sector?

Rory Stewart:

First, I wish to pay tribute to my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), who did this job far better than I will be able to do. One of the things that he introduced, which is going very well at the moment, is working with the Ministry of Defence. We are providing basic supplies for British military troops. It is something that is providing not just employment to prisoners, but the training and vocational skills they require for future employment.

Tony Lloyd (Rochdale) (Lab):

Prisoners move round the prison system and, in the end, they come out of the prison system. One thing that consistently goes wrong is the lack of consistency in education and training between different institutions and in institutions once the prisoner leaves. The Minister has talked about power to the governor, but governors must work within the construct of the wider environment. What will he do to ensure that we have that consistency?

Rory Stewart:

This is of course a balance between empowering the governor so that they can have a tailored programme that is flexible and works for the prison and having decent national standards. That will mean setting the curriculum at a national level, having the area managers engaged over the governors and also giving the governors the ability to have education that is relevant to their areas—skills that are relevant to the jobs outside the prison gates.

Parole Board

9.

What steps he has taken to ensure that the Parole Board takes account of public safety in its decision on releasing a prisoner.[903492]

The Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor (Mr David Gauke):

Public safety is the primary consideration in Parole Board decisions on releasing a prisoner. The law requires that the Parole Board may direct release only if it is satisfied that continued detention is no longer necessary for the protection of the public. Parole Board members are selected on account of their experience and ability to assess risk. Their decisions are based on a comprehensive assessment of the ongoing risk posed by the offender, using detailed reports produced by risk management professionals. More broadly, I have already announced that my Department will be carrying out a full review of the relevant processes and procedures in place for victims relating to Parole Board decisions, and we will consider whether they should be improved.

Alberto Costa:

I welcome my right hon. Friend to his post. Both of us worked in the same City firm—Richards Butler—at different stages over a number of years. In light of the recent John Worboys case, my constituents have raised similar concerns with regard to the release of Colin Pitchfork who brutally raped and murdered two teenage girls in my constituency and pleaded not guilty. He was only found guilty as a result of DNA evidence, which was a first at the time. What assurances can my right hon. Friend provide for the safety of my constituents and others who have not been fully considered in this matter? Will he assure us that the Parole Board will take into account the safety of our citizens in regard to Mr Pitchfork’s release?

Mr Gauke:

I thank my hon. Friend for his remarks. The safety of the public is the Parole Board’s overriding concern in considering whether a prisoner should be released, and that will be the Board’s concern when it comes to reviewing Pitchfork’s detention. I can confirm that the families of Pitchfork’s victims are receiving regular contact under the Probation Service Victim Contact Scheme. Specifically, they have been given the opportunity to submit a victim personal statement to the Parole Board and to make representations regarding licence conditions for any upcoming parole hearing.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP):

On the special protections in place for the release of sex offenders, does the Minister believe that releasing them to the same area that the attacks took place re-traumatises the victims and stirs up community anxiety?

Mr Gauke:

Ultimately, these are operational decisions. A number of factors have to be taken into account in deciding what licensed conditions exist, but, clearly, the views and concerns of victims are an important part of that process.

Justine Greening (Putney) (Con):

In relation to the Parole Board’s review of public safety, for those of us with deeply concerned victims of John Worboys in our constituencies, can my right hon. Friend confirm that the Government will at least co-operate with the judicial review now being brought by victims?

Mr Gauke:

In my statement to the House on Friday, I set out that I would not be pursuing a judicial review on behalf of the Government in this case, but I also made it very clear that I did not want to say or do anything that would in any way stand in the way of others who may have different routes into a judicial review. I maintain that position.

Victims of Crime

10.

Whether the Government plan to introduce new legislative proposals on enshrining rights for victims.[903493]

15.

What steps his Department is taking to support victims of crime.[903498]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Dr Phillip Lee):

The Government want victims to get the support they need to cope with, and as far as possible recover from, the effects of crime. We are spending £96 million in 2017-18 to fund critical support services for victims of crime. That includes £7.2 million for nationally commissioned rape support services.

Neil Coyle:

John Worboys lived in Rotherhithe in my constituency and is not welcome back. He has not served the sentence he was given and was not prosecuted for the vast majority of his crimes. How are the Government working with victims, police authorities and the Crown Prosecution Service to ensure that sex attackers are prosecuted for their crimes, and how is the Ministry of Justice better ensuring that victims’ rights are upheld in future parole decisions?

Dr Lee:

The case of Worboys has troubled us all; it has troubled me personally—of course it has. In this particular case, Dame Glenys Stacey is investigating the review from a probation point of view. As the Secretary of State has already said, there are operational responsibilities with regard to where he is transferred to and the directions when he is released and where he can go. The Department is engaged with that on a daily basis.

Gareth Johnson:

The biggest insult that can be given to a victim of crime is the imposition of a derisory sentence on the offender. Will my hon. Friend update the House on his plans to widen the scope of the unduly lenient sentence scheme, as set out in the Conservative party manifesto?

Dr Lee:

As I am sure my hon. Friend is aware, the Government committed in their manifesto to consider the extension of the scope of the unduly lenient sentence scheme. My right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney General is reviewing that.

Gloria De Piero (Ashfield) (Lab):

We all know that, too often, victims are failed by the criminal justice system. That is presumably why, in 2015, the Conservatives matched Labour’s manifesto commitment to enshrine victims’ rights in a victims law. It is three years on. Can Ministers give me a single good reason why it has not happened?

Dr Lee:

After Easter my victims strategy will be published, as promised, and within it there will be recommendations on legislative and non-legislative measures, part of which will be the legislative underpinning of the victims code.

Drones

11.

What steps the Government are taking to stop the use of drones over prisons.[903494]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Rory Stewart):

I first pay tribute to my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr Gyimah), for his extraordinary work on drones. We have done a range of work, ranging from Operation Trenton with the police, which took place in 2016, through to the conviction of over 28 individuals for drone-related offences.

Jeremy Quin:

What particular extra support is given to those prisons with a high incidence of drone attacks? Will the Minister agree to meet me to discuss potential improvements to the relevant legislation?

Rory Stewart:

We have established specialist teams for prisons that have particular vulnerabilities to drone attacks. I am very happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss some of the legislative issues. I also believe that there is much more we can do on basic issues such as netting and grills, as well as focusing on high technology.

Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con):

Drones are one of the ways in which mobile phones are got into prisons, where they can be used for criminality alongside drugs. What measures are being taken to use technology to limit the use of mobile phones in prison?

Rory Stewart:

Two types of technology can be used on mobile telephones. One is jamming technology, and the second, which is more commonly used in prison, is a wand to detect mobile telephones. An astonishing number of phones—at over 20,000, there are far too many—are detected in prisons. We should be addressing this in two ways. The first is by making sure that they do not get in: these are closed environments and we should be able to massively reduce the amount coming in. The second is that, by putting phones in cells to allow people to talk to their families, we can monitor the calls and control the need for phones in the first place.

Court Improvements

14.

What steps his Department is taking to improve the court experience for people who work in the justice system.[903497]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Lucy Frazer):

The Ministry of Justice has plans for a £1 billion modernisation programme for the courts. This will streamline and simplify processes using technology, helping those who work in the courts and those who use them.

Andrew Lewer:

Will the Minister give an assessment of the Department’s recent work in improving the performance of the alternative dispute resolution scheme, which is intended to help consumers resolve disputes with traders but also to ease the volume of work in the courtroom?

Lucy Frazer:

My hon. Friend is right to highlight the importance and value of alternative dispute resolutions. Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service already runs a small claims mediation service to help parties resolve claims worth under £10,000 before a hearing. We are also working to offer an online mediation service for those who begin their claims online.

Cat Smith (Lancaster and Fleetwood) (Lab):

Under this Government hundreds of courts have closed, and I now see that Fleetwood court is on the latest consultation list. How do these court closures contribute to a positive experience for “those who work in the courts and those who use them”?

Lucy Frazer:

Last year, nationally, court and tribunal services were used at only 58% of their available hearing capacity. Moreover, as I have outlined, we are planning to spend £1 billion on modernising the courts service by using technology to put some processes online and employ video evidence more effectively. In those circumstances, it is appropriate to consider the best use of the money that we spend on the legal services system, as we are doing through a consultation that will include the hon. Lady’s local magistrates court. We will listen closely. It is important to remember, however, that all the money saved through any court closures will be put back into the justice system, making sure that it works effectively for everybody in it.

Topical Questions

T1.[903473]

If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities.

The Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor (Mr David Gauke):

The Worboys case has made it clear to me that there are some aspects of the Parole Board’s decision-making process that need to be examined and improved. It is crucial that we preserve the independence of the Parole Board, but equally important that these decisions can be scrutinised and, in some circumstances, reconsidered. That is why I announced on Friday the expansion of the scope of the review of the Parole Board to include not just transparency of decision making, but whether, in what circumstances, and how outcomes can be challenged. I will not rush to conclusions. This is a complex area where the rightful concerns of victims will be considered but also balanced with the legal rights of offenders. We will have completed the review by Easter, and I will report thereafter.

Priti Patel:

The Lord Chancellor will be aware of the case of my constituent who was left blinded in one eye and unable to work because of her abusive ex-partner. The offender was sentenced by our court to a pathetically small 22 months and released early, and the Crown Prosecution Service could not be bothered to pursue a compensation order. Will he personally review how this case has been handled, the soft sentence given, and the failures of the criminal justice system to support the victim?

Mr Gauke:

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for raising what certainly appears to be an extremely distressing case. We are looking at options to strengthen our response to domestic abuse and hope to bring forward proposals soon. I cannot comment on individual sentencing decisions, and prosecution decisions are made by the CPS. I will, however, look at the role that my Department had in this case and write to her in response to her specific questions.

T2.[903474]

My constituent Kim Mitchell was the victim of child sexual abuse in 1990 when she was only eight years old. Kim had to suffer the trauma of growing up with the authorities not believing her, yet after a long battle her abuser was eventually charged just last year. Sadly, Kim has been denied criminal injuries compensation due to a minor unspent criminal conviction. Does the Secretary of State think this is fair?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Dr Phillip Lee):

It sounds like an appalling case. I ask the hon. Lady to write to me about it and I am happy to meet her.

T4.[903476]

Constituents repeatedly complain to me that dangerous criminals do not as a matter of course serve the sentence given by the courts. What action is the Department taking to ensure that sufficient prison places are available so that dangerous criminals can serve the sentence deemed appropriate by the courts?

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Rory Stewart):

We focus on making sure that we have a proper capital investment programme in place, so additional money has been allocated for the building of new prisons, two are currently being commissioned, and we currently have spare places in our prisons. To reassure my hon. Friend, it is absolutely vital that we have the places so that people can serve their sentence. Sentences should not be driven by availability of prison places.

T3.[903475]

In my recent community consultation, real concern was expressed about the lack of access to legal aid, particularly for employment, housing and welfare cases. In an earlier exchange, the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. and learned Member for South East Cambridgeshire (Lucy Frazer) failed to acknowledge that, since the 2012 changes, there has been a 75% fall in the number of civil legal aid cases. With the Department facing cuts of £800 million, how confident is the Minister that the review she mentioned earlier will provide the access to justice that is currently being denied to hundreds of thousands of the most vulnerable?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Lucy Frazer):

It is very important that those who are most vulnerable get access to legal aid, and legal aid is available for those who are in need at the most critical moments in their life. The hon. Gentleman mentioned housing, and legal aid is available where there is homelessness or where disrepairs to the home seriously threaten an individual’s life or health. We are reviewing legal aid, and we will update the House accordingly.

T8.[903481]

Islamic and Jewish religious traditions insist that bodies be buried as soon as possible after death, so does the Minister agree with me that it is reprehensible for the north London coroner, Mary Hassell, independently to insist on a policy in which“no death will be prioritised in any way over any other because of the religion of the deceased or family”?

Dr Phillip Lee:

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I am aware of the situation, having met representatives of the Board of Deputies of British Jews and Muslim burial representatives in October 2016. Coroners are independent of the Government, but I do recognise that there are some sensitivities around this issue and that there have been some difficulties in communication between the coroner and certain parties. That is why I would be very happy to meet my hon. Friend and, indeed, those representatives again in the Department.

T5.[903477]

Does the Secretary of State think it right that the number of women experiencing domestic violence who are forced to represent themselves in court has doubled since 2012, and what steps is he taking to give them better access to legal representation?

Mr Gauke:

First, as I said a moment or so ago, we are looking to say more about domestic violence in the near future. This is a matter that the Government take very seriously across the board. On legal aid, as the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for South East Cambridgeshire, has already pointed out, we are currently undertaking a review.

Julia Lopez (Hornchurch and Upminster) (Con):

We know that conversion to a radical brand of Islamist thinking too often occurs in a prison setting. Will the Minister update the House on the work being done to address this issue and set out the procedures to vet religious officials working with the vulnerable prison population?

Rory Stewart:

This is a hugely important issue for Members on both sides of the House. We know absolutely that extremism—we can see this in France, and we of course saw it in Iraq—can be driven in a prison setting. The problem is not simply the 230 prisoners arrested for terrorist offences, but others who can be influenced when they are in a prison setting. We are working very hard with colleagues in the Home Office on this issue, and it will be a priority for the Secretary of State and me during our time in office.

T6.[903478]

Does the Minister believe that the funding gap in the NHS is having an impact on healthcare provision in our prisons?

Dr Phillip Lee:

Healthcare in prisons was a priority for me when I took over in July 2016: it was the first thing I started to ask about. The Ministry of Justice now has a much closer relationship with the Department of Health with regard to the provision of healthcare. We have made advances in the transfer of patients’ information—when prisoners come in, their patient data follow them—which was a problem in the past. I am under no illusions about the healthcare challenges still faced within the prison system, and that is why I will continue to work actively with the Department of Health, which is ultimately the Department responsible for the provision of those services.

Mr Philip Dunne (Ludlow) (Con):

I was pleased, along with other Shropshire and Telford MPs, to see last Friday that Telford magistrates court was not included in the list of courts to be consulted on, but will the Minister meet me and other Shropshire MPs to understand how important it is to retain the last magistrates court in our county?

Lucy Frazer:

I would be very happy to meet my hon. Friend and other MPs from the area. There are two consultations taking place: one in relation to eight specific court closures, and a wider consultation on the future of our courts. I encourage my hon. Friend to participate in that, and to highlight any concerns he has about his local area or nationally.

T7.[903479]

Can the Minister tell the House why Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service is paying more than £30 million to PwC consultants for a digital court system that has not been subject to democratic processes, and is not backed by evidence that it will improve access to justice?

Lucy Frazer:

As I have outlined, there is a £1 billion modernisation programme, which is very complex and which we need to get right. It involves a number of aspects that need scrutiny. PwC is replacing a number of smaller providers and fulfilling an important service.

Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con):

Recent reports by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons reveal a consistent failure by the Prison Service to act on recommendations made by the inspector in previous reports. Does the Minister agree that compliance with inspectorate reports should be the norm, rather than the exception?

Rory Stewart:

Absolutely. Peter Clarke, the chief inspector of prisons, does an extraordinary job. We are doing two things to make sure that we implement those recommendations better. First, we have set up a special unit in the Ministry to follow up on every one of those recommendations. Secondly, we have introduced an urgent notification process, which requires us to reply within 28 days to any issues raised by the inspector.

T9.[903482]

Following the recent round of court closures, the MOJ committed to ensuring that there was adequate alternative provision after closing Eastbourne courts. That has not happened, despite the Courts and Tribunals Service saying that it had. Will the Minister agree to meet me and legal representatives from Eastbourne to resolve this wholly unsatisfactory situation?

Lucy Frazer:

I would be very happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss that issue.

Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con):

Pakistani nationals make up one of the largest national groups in our prisons, but the prisoner transfer agreement with Pakistan has been suspended for the last eight years. As a matter of urgency, can we get it up and running again?

Rory Stewart:

My hon. Friend will be aware that the prisoner transfer agreement was suspended because of the corrupt release of prisoners from Pakistani prisons. We are addressing that at the moment with the Government of Pakistan, and we continue to work very closely with officials in the Foreign Office, the Department for International Development and the Home Office to make sure that we continue to return a record number of foreign national offenders—4,000 last year—to the places from which they came.

Layla Moran (Oxford West and Abingdon) (LD):

In the 18 months prior to May 2017, three openly transgender women took their own lives while they were in custody in England. What is being done to ensure that staff have the right training and, critically, that prisoners have the right mental health support to head off such tragic events?

Dr Phillip Lee:

The hon. Lady is right that such events are tragic. We are working extremely hard on training staff to recognise the particular needs of transgender offenders. The challenge for the system is that they are a relatively small number of people spread across a number of prisons. We are making some progress, but there is more to do.

Paul Scully (Sutton and Cheam) (Con):

It is good to hear the Minister offer to speak to Members around the House about the courts in their patch. When she does so, will she explain to them about modernisation and digitalisation, and how those changes may improve access to courts?

Lucy Frazer:

My hon. Friend makes an important point. First, this is a consultation, and I am very happy to engage with any colleagues who would like to discuss it, because we are listening. Secondly, the future of our courts is exciting, and transformation will take place through technology. Interestingly, in a document entitled “Transforming Our Justice System”, the then Lord Chief Justice, the then Lord Chancellor and the Senior President of Tribunals highlighted the fact that as our courts and tribunals are modernised, we will need fewer buildings.

Daniel Zeichner (Cambridge) (Lab):

I congratulate the hon. and learned Lady, my neighbour, on her appointment. She will have noticed the very strong and universally hostile reaction in Cambridge and Cambridgeshire to her plans to close the magistrates court. Can she reassure us that local people will be properly listened to, and better still, will she withdraw those plans today?

Lucy Frazer:

As I have highlighted, these plans take place within the context of a £1 billion modernisation of the court system, and in circumstances where, nationally, courts and tribunal services are not used at capacity. As I have said, I will listen properly in the court closures consultation, although the Lord Chancellor will make the ultimate decision. I would like to point out that five sites identified in the last consultation on court closures remain open following the review. When strong cases are made, we will listen.

Andrew Selous (South West Bedfordshire) (Con):

When a prisoner is released, they are not even at base camp in their rehabilitation unless they have accommodation. Some local authorities actively discriminate against ex-offenders—for example, by claiming that they have no local connection because they have been sent to a prison a long way away. Fairness is what is required. Will the Minister challenge that behaviour with his counterparts in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government?

Rory Stewart:

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his knowledge of this issue. There are three things we are doing to address this issue, but we can do much more. The first is having a statutory duty on governors to identify prisoners who are at risk of homelessness. The second is investing more in bail accommodation support services to provide temporary support and accommodation. The third is working with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to make sure that, through the Housing First pilots, we can actually have homes available even for people with severe mental health needs. Housing is essential.

Sarah Jones (Croydon Central) (Lab):

One of my constituents has a young son who is serving a very long prison sentence. He often spends 23 out of 24 hours locked up in his cell. How does the Minister think that is affecting his mental health and his chances of rehabilitation on release?

Rory Stewart:

Clearly, this is not good. Prisoners need decent, purposeful activity. If they are locked up in their cell for too long, they are obviously not having educational opportunities. We should aim, as the chief inspector of prisons made clear, to make sure that people are spending eight or 10 hours a day outside their cells. That is partly about numbers of staff, which is why we have brought 250 more staff into the Prison Service. It is also about better scheduling of educational and vocational provision. However, the situation the hon. Lady describes is not acceptable.

Liz McInnes (Heywood and Middleton) (Lab):

Following campaigns by victims’ families, the Government announced in October last year that they would bring in tougher sentences for those causing death or serious injury by dangerous driving, but still nothing has happened. Why the delay?

Mr Gauke:

We will be reporting to the House in due course.

Liz Saville Roberts (Dwyfor Meirionnydd) (PC):

I would like to put on record my role as co-chair of the justice unions parliamentary group.

When north Wales’s only prison, HMP Berwyn, partially opened on 28 February last year, its regime of skills development and rehabilitation was lauded as pioneering, yet we now learn that, in its first six months, 27 staff members left, and I am told by the Prison Officers Association that morale is at rock bottom. I understand that, in the early months, prisoners assaulted staff on nine occasions, and only one was referred to police. How will the Minister improve offenders’ rehabilitation when recruitment, retention and, critically, staff safety at HMP Berwyn are in crisis?

Rory Stewart:

I am very happy to speak in detail with the hon. Lady, who has put an enormous amount of passion and energy into studying issues in prisons in Wales. We believe there are some very positive signs now at HMP Berwyn, but we can talk those through. Recruitment figures have actually been very positive—we are ahead on the recruitment of 2,500 people across England and Wales—but I am very happy to sit down and talk about Berwyn in particular.

Mr Speaker:

While the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) was ploughing through her question, the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) was doing his customary knee exercises, from which I hope he greatly profits. I call Mr Andrew Slaughter.

Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab):

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker.

Has the Secretary of State seen the investigation published at the weekend by The Sun into new allegations of misconduct by the west London coroner, including bullying, sexism and homophobic conduct towards staff? Despite previous findings of serious misconduct, three-year delays in issuing death certificates, secret inquests being held at night and important case papers being lost, he has been cleared by the Secretary of State to return to work. Will the Secretary of State meet west London MPs and council leaders to discuss this crisis?

Mr Gauke:

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. I know that the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Bracknell (Dr Lee), who is responsible for coroners, will be happy to meet him.

Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab):

The number and percentage of women given custodial sentences has dropped in many areas of the country. In north Wales, the figure has increased by 57%. Will the Minister look into the reasons for this huge increase?

Dr Phillip Lee:

I am very happy to. Will the hon. Gentleman please send me the information?

Rachael Maskell (York Central) (Lab/Co-op):

Some women in York have been taken to the family courts on multiple occasions by former partners. This process is clearly being used as a form of emotional abuse, and is highly costly to constituents and the state. What steps is the Minister taking to recognise court abuse, and what actions will she take now?

Lucy Frazer:

Using the court process to further any abuse is completely unacceptable, particularly in relation to domestic abuse. The court can already take actions if it thinks that there is abuse of process, by restricting litigants’ ability to continue with further applications and further claims. New family court rules were introduced in November to make sure that vulnerable court users get the support they need in courtrooms.

Dr Lisa Cameron (East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow) (SNP):

Individuals with autism spectrum disorder are some of the most vulnerable inmates in prison and are often subject to bullying, abuse and victimisation, with high rates of suicide. What progress is being made on autism accreditation in prisons?

Rory Stewart:

This is a hugely important issue. I would very much like to sit down with the hon. Lady, because the Scottish Prison Service has a lot that it can teach us. It is doing a very good job on many of these issues, and I think we can learn a great deal from it.