Topical Questions

Justice – in the House of Commons am ar 26 Mawrth 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Tan Dhesi Tan Dhesi Shadow Minister (Exports)

If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities.

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

Since the last session of Justice questions I have visited HMP Liverpool, a prison that received a poor inspection report some years ago, and I saw how it had been transformed. Prisoners were engaged in constructive activity in the cycle repair workshop and elsewhere, cells had been refurbished, and there was a clear sense of pride among prison officers, who were determined to deliver safety, decency and rehabilitation. Prisons as well as prisoners, it seems, can be redeemed. I have also visited Liverpool Crown court to see our “intensive supervision courts” in action, tackling the root causes of offending with treatment for addictions. In Coventry I saw rapid deployment teams of offenders who had been sentenced to carrying out unpaid work clearing up local neighbourhoods, visibly atoning for their crimes, and doing so within 48 hours of the project being nominated by the public.

I was pleased to support the important Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation Bill, promoted by Wayne David, which is intended to tackle abusive and chilling lawsuits. We have also brought forward legislation on litigation funding agreements to ensure that third parties can continue to fund court proceedings on behalf of individuals or small businesses. That support enabled the sub-postmasters to make their successful civil claim. Our legislation will bolster access to justice, boost our legal sector, and ensure that in our courts David can still take on Goliath.

Photo of Tan Dhesi Tan Dhesi Shadow Minister (Exports)

The Government have achieved only 5,900 of the promised 20,000 new prison places, resulting in them having to release prisoners up to 60 days early to alleviate overcrowding, thereby directly impacting on public safety. How does the Secretary of State reconcile this with the Conservative promise of being tough on crime, especially when his end-of-custody supervised licensing scheme expansion significantly deviates from judicial sentencing?

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. When I was in practice, I had to listen to the then Labour Home Secretary say that he was going to cancel the three Titan prisons that he had boasted he would open. Not one was built. We have opened Five Wells and Fosse Way, and Millsike is under construction. We have more cells coming online in Birmingham, Liverpool and Norwich. We have rapid deployment cells, and we have new houseblocks in Guys Marsh, Rye Hill and Hatfield. This is the party that is delivering. We will be tough on crime.

Photo of Tom Randall Tom Randall Ceidwadwyr, Gedling

I recently met my constituent David Winnett, who is a family law solicitor and a member of Resolution. He told me about Resolution’s vision for family justice. I wonder whether my right hon. and learned Friend is familiar with that vision, particularly the importance placed on early legal advice in family disputes. Is there scope to add Resolution’s proposed scheme to the mediation pilots that the Government currently have planned?

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

Resolution does exceptionally important work, and in the Budget the Chancellor announced an additional £55 million of support for separating parents, including £12 million to deliver a new pilot. We are working with Resolution and other organisations to implement the pilot, which we aim to launch in September this year.

Photo of Shabana Mahmood Shabana Mahmood Shadow Secretary of State for Justice

This Conservative Government promised 20,000 prison places by 2025, but so far they have only delivered under 6,000. The Justice Secretary is letting violent offenders out up to two months early because, as we found out from press briefings about dire warnings to No. 10, he has literally nowhere to put them. Instead of focusing on what happened 14 years ago under the last Labour Government, will he level with the public about the true scale of the prisons capacity crisis that is unfolding on his watch?

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

I have been very candid in saying that there are pressures in our prisons. But here is the thing: first, capacity in our jails is significantly higher than it was under Labour’s watch; and secondly, we have a record of delivery and there will be 10,000 places by next year. Here is the really important point. There are two questions that I posed in my statement. First, would Labour have let out up to 16,000 people during covid—yes or no? We said no. Secondly, would Labour have got rid of jury trials? We did not, but the Opposition would have. If they had made the same decisions that we did, they would have faced the same pressures. This is opportunism, it is silly, and Britain deserves better.

Photo of Shabana Mahmood Shabana Mahmood Shadow Secretary of State for Justice

Bring on the general election and I will happily answer those questions. I am not surprised that the Secretary of State does not want to acknowledge the truth. Probation officers have told me that they genuinely fear not being able to keep the public safe, because they are being forced to rush through the early release of violent men in order to free up space. He will have heard the same concerns, so what is he going to do about it?

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

It is really important that the public are not inadvertently misled. Early release does not apply to those on life sentences, those on imprisonment for public protection sentences, those on extended determinate sentences, any sex offenders, any terrorism offenders and any serious violent offenders. The difference between our scheme and the Opposition’s is that, under their scheme, governors had no discretion to block the release of prisoners; under ours, they do. That is the difference: we prioritise public safety; the Opposition prioritise politics.

Photo of Elliot Colburn Elliot Colburn Ceidwadwyr, Carshalton and Wallington

My constituent Cindy went through hell when her daughter Victoria was brutally raped and attacked by a serial offender, Donald Andrews. Victoria took her life not long after. This monster was a regular offender before and, to add insult to injury, his whole-life sentence has been quashed and he is now applying for parole. Police psychologists and other professionals have deemed this attacker to be a high risk to society, so will my right hon. Friend make similar representations to the Parole Board—that this monster should never be allowed out?

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

Many people in this House will have heard about some appalling cases, but this case is truly one of the most shocking and upsetting that any of us will have encountered. I of course pass on my deepest sympathy to Cindy Legg for the tragic loss of her daughter Victoria. I can indicate that I did enter an overarching view opposing release, and I can announce that he will not be recommended for release. I hope that will be of some comfort to the family. In the Victims and Prisoners Bill we are introducing an additional safeguard: specifically, a power for the Lord Chancellor to order a second check on the release of the most serious offenders to keep the public safe.

Photo of Chris Stephens Chris Stephens Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Immigration)

The Government’s plans to introduce employment tribunal fees suggest that users should pay towards running costs, implying that only those using the system benefit from it. However, Resolution Foundation research shows that tribunals are heavily relied upon to enforce workers’ rights for all. Does the Justice Secretary not appreciate that any action to deter lower-paid workers from bringing forward cases will be to the detriment of the system as a whole?

Photo of Mike Freer Mike Freer Assistant Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

We do not believe that a £55 claim issue fee will be a deterrent. The tribunal system costs the taxpayer £80 million a year, and we do not think it is unreasonable that those who use it should pay a small contribution. To answer the question, we do not think it is a deterrent.

Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster Ceidwadwyr, Torbay

The tragic reality is that when intimate partners murder, women are the victims in 90% of cases. What progress have the Government made since the Wade review on ensuring that justice is done in these cases?

Photo of Gareth Bacon Gareth Bacon The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

We are increasing sentences by introducing statutory aggravating factors for murders that are preceded by coercive or controlling behaviour, that involve overkill or that are connected with the end of a relationship. For manslaughter involving sexual conduct, we intend to target cases where death occurs in the context of abusive or degrading sexual conduct. We have consulted publicly on sentencing, with starting points for murders preceded by controlling or coercive behaviour and for murders committed with a knife or other weapon.

Photo of Florence Eshalomi Florence Eshalomi Shadow Minister (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government)

People want access to justice. The Women’s Budget Group has found that, as a result of the disastrous Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, 85% of vulnerable women are unable to access civil legal aid and the majority of them are reaching crisis point. Does the Minister think it is right that these women are being left without basic access to justice?

Photo of Mike Freer Mike Freer Assistant Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

The hon. Lady raises an important point and I would be happy to meet her and take representations on that specific point. I will also discuss it with Lord Bellamy, who, alongside me, deals with civil legal aid.

Photo of Luke Evans Luke Evans Ceidwadwyr, Bosworth

I thank the Lord Chancellor for meeting me and my hon. Friend the Member for South Leicestershire (Alberto Costa) to discuss the egregious case of Colin Pitchfork, the double child rapist, who has had problems bouncing in and out through the Parole Board system. I know that my right hon. and learned Friend cannot change the law on this retrospectively, but what can he do in upcoming legislation to ensure that we have the protections for our communities to make sure they are safe and that reoffenders are not released?

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this incredibly important case and for taking it up so powerfully on behalf of his constituents. In the Sentencing Bill, we have a proposal such that people who commit crimes of murder involving sexual and sadistic conduct will not be released, because they will be expected to serve a whole-life order. That is just, on behalf of the British people, and it also helps to keep communities such as that of my hon. Friend safe.

Photo of Chris Evans Chris Evans Shadow Minister (Tech and Digital Economy)

The number of outstanding cases before Gwent magistrates courts has risen by 21% in the last year alone. However, the number of magistrates is now 20% lower in the whole of south Wales. We have heard today about the great work of the magistrates courts and the fact that magistrates come from all walks of life. What are the Government doing to ensure that hard-to-reach people are offering their services as magistrates, including ethnic minorities and, in particular, younger people?

Photo of Mike Freer Mike Freer Assistant Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

The hon. Gentleman raises a good point. I lead on diversity in the Department, and a piece of work is already under way on how we can increase the diversity of the magistracy and ensure that we recruit from those hard-to-reach groups. I am more than happy to meet him to swap ideas and discuss how we can continue to change the face of our magistrates.

Photo of Andrew Rosindell Andrew Rosindell Ceidwadwyr, Romford

Does the Secretary of State for Justice agree that in England and across the United Kingdom, the ancient principle of innocent until proven guilty should be upheld and restored, and that the punishment should never be the process?

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I was asked about my priorities when I was appointed to this role, and I said that the guilty should be convicted, that the innocent should walk free and that the public should be protected. It is very important that people who are accused of an offence have confidence that the process will be prompt and humane. Ultimately, the British people are fair minded. They want people to be rightfully convicted, but they also want the innocent to walk free.

Photo of Ruth Jones Ruth Jones Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Since 27 February, there have been six sudden deaths at HMP Parc in Bridgend, and it appears that at least four of those tragic deaths were drug-related. What are the Government doing to ensure that inmates at Parc are kept safe and walk out of prison safe and well at the end of their sentence?

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for highlighting a serious and important issue. I am happy to meet her to discuss it further, if she wishes.

In line with established protocols for deaths in custody, we are not able to comment on individual cases until the relevant investigation by the prisons and probation ombudsman has concluded, but HMP and YOI Parc has mobilised a range of actions to gather intelligence on drug entry points and on what has happened. I am happy to meet the hon. Lady to discuss this matter privately.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Ceidwadwyr, Christchurch

When the National Crime Agency briefed Members who are interested in the Investigatory Powers (Amendment) Bill, it estimated that between 550,000 and 800,000 serious sexual offenders are at large in this country. What are the Government doing to identify them? How many more prisons will we have to build to accommodate them?

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

I am proud that, since 2010, the number of people prosecuted for rape is up 32%, sentences are around 40% longer and the proportion of those sentences spent in custody has increased. We are determined to do everything possible to send a clear message that addressing serious sexual offending is a priority for this Government. We will clamp down on it, and those who perpetrate this vile crime can expect the punishment they deserve.

Photo of Alex Davies-Jones Alex Davies-Jones Shadow Minister (Domestic Violence and Safeguarding)

The Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation Bill, which was tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) and which the Government now support, is a great opportunity to tackle pernicious lawsuits that seek to silence journalists, campaigners and even sexual assault survivors, but two key deficiencies—the overly subjective test and the narrow definition of public interest—mean that anti-SLAPP campaigners tell me that they simply cannot support the Bill in its current form. Ahead of the important Committee stage, will the Lord Chancellor commit to looking at the amendment suggested by the News Media Association and meet me to address its concerns so that the Bill becomes fit for purpose?

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising this important issue. I am aware of the issues that have been raised. There is plainly a delicate balance to strike. It is incredibly important that individuals can access the courts to get a remedy in appropriate cases, and we want to make sure that the balance is properly struck. We will consider the amendment with care, as I have with the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. If the hon. Lady wants to make representations to me, I will listen to them very carefully.

Photo of Brendan Clarke-Smith Brendan Clarke-Smith Ceidwadwyr, Bassetlaw

Worksop witnessed the horrific murder of Pauline Quinn by a man who had been released after serving time for a double murder. The probation service has since admitted that mistakes were made. However, the public still have many unanswered questions. Does the Minister agree that, although it is understandable that all the information sometimes cannot be put in the public domain, the probation service should seek to be as transparent as possible and give communities that information, where possible?

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this important issue. He is right to highlight that there are occasions when it is not possible to make all the information public, but it is important that there is as much transparency as possible. If it would be helpful, I am happy to meet him to discuss it further.

Photo of Keir Mather Keir Mather Llafur, Selby and Ainsty

Selby is classed by the Law Society as a legal advice desert for housing, education and family legal aid. What are the Minister’s plans to fix that?

Photo of Mike Freer Mike Freer Assistant Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

The Legal Aid Agency keeps the location of providers under constant review. We have invested an additional £10 million over the last few months in those specific types of legal aid. If the hon. Gentleman writes to me, I can give him the details of where the spend is going in his local area.

Photo of Bob Neill Bob Neill Chair, Justice Committee, Chair, Justice Committee

Joshua Rozenberg KC has presented “Law in Action” on Radio 4 over the past 20 years, and it has frequently shed important light on areas of our justice system that need attention. Does the Secretary of State share my disappointment that today’s broadcast will be the programme’s last, because it has not been recommissioned? Will he also pay tribute to Joshua Rozenberg for his work?

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

I am very grateful to my hon. and learned Friend for raising this point. Joshua Rozenberg has made a profound and important contribution to our country. Indeed, he is required reading, and I read him most days. I share my hon. and learned Friend’s profound regret, and I echo his sentiments. I think the whole House will wish Joshua Rozenberg well.

Photo of Rupa Huq Rupa Huq Llafur, Ealing Central and Acton

All through Lent, women nationwide have faced intimidation from the anti-choice group 40 Days for Life blocking their entrance to abortion clinics daily. Why is that happening, given that MPs voted by a ratio of 3:1 in 2022 for safe access zones, with the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, Laura Farris being one of them?

Photo of Laura Farris Laura Farris Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Ministry of Justice and Home Office)

I concur with the hon. Lady that it is completely unacceptable that anyone should feel harassed or intimidated when exercising their legal right to abortion services. I hope she will be reassured to hear that it is anticipated that section 9 of the Public Order Act 2023 will be commenced no later than this spring. The consultation on the guidance published by the Home Office closed on 22 January and the final response will be published in due course. I must just say one thing, however: it is right that a balance will need to be struck where competing rights are engaged, including under articles 10 and 11 of the European convention on human rights.

Photo of Chi Onwurah Chi Onwurah Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Shadow Minister (Science, Research and Innovation)

Our probation service is in crisis, with staff overworked, overstretched and undervalued. The expansion of the early release scheme will put yet more pressure on them, so what is the Minister doing this year to help our probation staff face that extra workload?

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

Probation officers do an exceptionally important job, as I believe we all agree. Let me set out what we have done in respect of prison and probation staff. First, we accepted every penny of the Prison Service pay review body recommendations. We have injected extra funding of more than £155 million a year into probation. Prison officers do a tough job, as do probation officers, but I am delighted to report that the retention of prison officers is improving, with the staff resignation rate in prisons dropping from about 10.7% to 8.3%, and their numbers have increased. As for probation, we have recruited about 4,000 people in the past three years. That is positive and we will continue to support them every step of the way.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Shadow Minister (Creative Industries and Digital)

Do we have enough crematoriums in the UK, given that many families are now having to wait three, four, five or six weeks for a funeral slot? Why is there such a gap between the cheapest crematorium in the country, which charges £408, and the most expensive, in Stevenage, which charged £1,400 last year?

Photo of Mike Freer Mike Freer Assistant Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

The challenges facing crematoriums, and in fact the whole funeral sector, are being reviewed by the Law Commission. This is about not just crematoriums, but burial space. There are challenges across the whole death management landscape, to use the technical term, which is why the Law Commission is investigating and bringing forward proposals.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Llafur, Hammersmith

The fees for civil legal aid are half what they were in 1996 and the number of providers has fallen by 40% in the past 10 years. If the Minister actually wants to do something about civil legal aid, why has he kicked the civil legal aid review into the long grass?

Photo of Mike Freer Mike Freer Assistant Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

Legal aid is always under constant review and I will always take advice from those closest to it. That is why I engage with, for example, the Bar Association, the Law Society and the judiciary on what we need to do. As for kicking things into the long grass, all I can say is that I want to get this right and if that takes time, it will take time.

Photo of Debbie Abrahams Debbie Abrahams Llafur, Oldham East and Saddleworth

Thank you, Mr Speaker. The Justice Secretary did not quite answer my question on where the 67,000 criminal cases in the backlog are, and how they are being prioritised and communicated. I do not want another historical child sexual exploitation victim to be told by a Crown court that her case has been cancelled twice because it is not a priority.

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

The point I was endeavouring to make, although I perhaps did not do so well, is that listing is a judicial function. We have seen the senior presiding judge make a decision that certain sex cases and those most serious rapes, for example—all of them are serious, of course—will be given an early listing. As I say, I do not have complete control over that, but I do discuss it with the Lady Chief Justice and I know that the senior presiding judge is keen to get through those cases at the earliest opportunity.