Topical Questions

Justice – in the House of Commons am ar 14 Mai 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Virendra Sharma Virendra Sharma Llafur, Ealing, Southall

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 met my G7 ministerial counterparts in Italy to discuss topics ranging from preventing illegal migration to tackling organised crime. Furthermore, we have announced a new offence—in which, incidentally, my G7 colleagues were very interested—prohibiting the creation of sexually explicit deepfakes, announced measures to remove parental responsibility from those convicted of the rape of a child, made progress with the Litigation Funding Agreements (Enforceability) Bill in the House of Lords to support access to justice for those such as the postmasters, and introduced an amendment to the Victims and Prisoners Bill to provide further protection for victims against unnecessary disclosure of counselling notes.

I have also attended the “Unlocking Investment in Ukraine” conference, which brought together Ukrainian lawyers and eminent British jurists. We in this country understand the importance of a strong legal sector to secure Ukraine’s future. The British people and this Parliament are determined to ensure that once it has won the war, Ukraine wins the peace as well.

Photo of Virendra Sharma Virendra Sharma Llafur, Ealing, Southall

With more than 80,000 children caught up in private family law proceedings, what is the Secretary of State doing to ensure that the welfare of children is protected?

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

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising private family law, because all too often people raise the issue of crime, but family matters too. I am really delighted that we have managed to secure funding from the Treasury to roll out early legal advice in private family law. Alongside the Pathfinder pilot scheme, it is designed to make the process of dealing with private family disputes more seamless and less painful, and ultimately ensure that children are put first.

Photo of Elliot Colburn Elliot Colburn Ceidwadwyr, Carshalton and Wallington

People in Carshalton and Wallington, particularly women, are being targeted in so-called “crash for cash” insurance scams. Could my right hon. and learned Friend outline what support is available to victims of this sort of crime?

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

If someone is the victim of a “crash for cash” scam, they are likely to be the victim of an offence under the Fraud Act 2006 or, potentially, under the Road Traffic Act 1988. We have quadrupled the funding for victims of crime, who are entitled under the victims code to be kept updated about the crime, to be notified about compensation and to be offered special measures if the case gets to court. Regardless of whether someone is the victim of “crash for cash”, theft or any other crime, the state should be there to provide the support they need.

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

This week the chief inspector of prisons found that, at HMP Lewes, the Government’s early release scheme is undermining safety and risk management. In one case, a high-risk prisoner was released early despite being a risk to children, having a history of stalking and domestic abuse, and being subject to a restraining order. Is this the Secretary of State’s idea of putting public safety first?

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

I read that report with care and will be looking very carefully at that specific case. It is important to read precisely what the chief inspector said. He said that that was an incident right at the beginning of the process, and he expected that things would bed down as we move on. The critical point is that under the Government’s scheme, if there is a concern about an individual who is proposed to be eligible, the governor can impose a veto, which gets the decision escalated to a panel. That is an important safeguard, and it was not present under the Labour scheme, as the hon. Lady well knows.

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

Report after report; failure after failure. At Parc Prison, nine people have died in just two months. At Bedford, cells were flooded with raw sewage. At Wandsworth, a suspected terrorist escaped last year, the prison is still not secure and the governor has resigned. She has taken responsibility. When will the Secretary of State?

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

The hon. Lady is right to say there are prisons where the standards are not where we want them to be. There are something like 120 prisons in the estate, and we are the party that created the urgent notification system so that these matters can be drawn to the attention of the Government, but I will make the following point. There are prisons that have failed in the past, and we have turned them around. Take HMP Liverpool, which I went to. My hon. and learned Friend Sir Robert Neill, who is Chair of the Justice Committee, will remember that in 2017 there was a scathing report about the prison, which has been turned around. It is safe, decent and rehabilitative, and prisoners are doing excellent work. Or take HMP Chelmsford, which had a UN and has been turned around. We take this issue incredibly seriously, and we are the party that is investing record amounts in our estate. In government, Labour boasted that it would bring in three Titan prisons, but it brought in one.

Photo of Theresa Villiers Theresa Villiers Ceidwadwyr, Chipping Barnet

A number of my constituents in Chipping Barnet tell me that they continue to have problems with delays in getting court judgments implemented by bailiffs. Will the Secretary of State do everything he can to tackle delays in the courts and bailiff system, especially for possession proceedings, where there continue to be real problems, causing delays and costs?

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

I thank my right hon. Friend for that important point. Fewer than 1% of tenancies required court action in 2019, but for difficult cases that do escalate to the courts, the Government recognise the importance of making sure that the process is smooth and efficient. Nearly 90% of county courts are currently listing possession hearings within four to eight weeks after a claim is received. On bailiff recruitment issues, we are running recruitment campaigns and have reduced administrative burdens to free up resources for bailiffs to focus on enforcement activity.

Photo of Rachel Hopkins Rachel Hopkins Llafur, Luton South

The Government’s latest panic measures to deal with the prison capacity crisis, including expanding the early release scheme to 10 weeks, have simply fuelled the probation crisis instead, with staff warning that many of these releases are unsafe and result in recall in a matter of days. Can the Minister confirm what specific extra resources he has recently put into this struggling service, so that it can cope with the sharp rise in probation workloads?

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

The hon. Lady is right to highlight the work of probation. I put on record—as I know my shadow would and I know she would—our gratitude to all those who work in our probation service. Over the long term, since 2021 we have put an extra £155 million a year into the probation service, and 4,000 more staff in training. She will have also seen the recent announcement made by my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor in respect of the probation reset to enable probation officers to focus their time on where it makes the greatest difference and has the greatest impact.

Photo of Rob Butler Rob Butler Ceidwadwyr, Aylesbury

We know that our prisons are extremely full, for the entirely understandable reasons that the Lord Chancellor has set out, but that often means that they cannot do the job of rehabilitation that we would all like them to. Will the Minister look again at the proposals I put forward with the Centre for Social Justice for a tough new sentence called the intensive control and rehabilitation order, to be served in the community but under strict conditions including GPS tags and compulsory courses to reduce the likelihood of reoffending?

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

I can confirm to my hon. Friend that officials have reviewed and considered ICROs, which involve the use of electronic monitoring, curfew arrangements and rehabilitative requirements targeted towards offenders who would otherwise be in custody. In June last year, we began a pilot of a scheme similar to the one he proposes, involving intense supervision courts, which divert offenders with complex needs away from short custodial sentences and provide them with wrap-around, multi-agency support to target the root causes of their offending behaviour.

Photo of Judith Cummins Judith Cummins Llafur, Bradford South

Today, at an event organised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford East (Imran Hussain), I am meeting my constituents who were encouraged by the solicitors firm SSB Law to pursue no win, no fee claims against defective cavity wall insulation providers. SSB Law subsequently went into administration, leaving my constituents with extortionate legal costs from defendant lawyers. What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that the Solicitors Regulation Authority has the necessary powers to provide my constituents with the protection, compensation and justice that they deserve?

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

I thank the hon. Lady for raising that important point on behalf of her constituents, and I will write to her.

Photo of James Gray James Gray Chair, Environmental Audit Sub-Committee on Polar Research, Chair, Environmental Audit Sub-Committee on Polar Research

It is now five years since my constituent, Ellie Gould, was brutally murdered in her own home. Her assailant been given a paltry 12-and-a-half-year sentence. Recently, a man who killed a stranger in the street was given 25 years, but simultaneously, on the same day, someone who cut his wife up into hundreds of pieces and disposed of the parts in a river was given a sentence starting at only 15 years. The Wade review recognised the terrible disparity between domestic murders and non-domestic murders, and called for that disparity to be corrected. Will the Secretary of State now tell us when he is going to reply to the Wade review? I hope that he will take due account of it and will equal up the sentences so that people who are guilty of domestic murders pay the same penalty as those who kill someone in the street.

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

In response to the Wade review, we have increased sentences by introducing statutory aggravating factors for murders that are preceded by controlling or coercive behaviour, that involve overkill or that are connected with the end of a relationship. We have also consulted publicly on sentencing starting points for murders preceded by controlling or coercive behaviour and for murders committed with a knife or other weapon. The Government are carefully considering the responses to the consultation and will publish their response in due course.

Photo of Mohammad Yasin Mohammad Yasin Llafur, Bedford

The urgent notification issued last week to Wandsworth Prison raised the same issues found at HMP Bedford six months ago. Both revealed a horror show of violence and overcrowding in filthy environments, with horrendous levels of self-harm and drug misuse. The staff try their best but lack experience. Does the Minister accept that it is his Government’s funding cuts and policy failures that have delivered a broken justice system that offers little hope of reform for prisoners or protection for victims?

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

No, I do not accept the premise of the hon. Gentleman’s question, which may not surprise him. In respect of Bedford Prison, which he and I have spoken about, we continue to put the investment into both staff and the prison to make progress following that urgent notification.

Photo of Dehenna Davison Dehenna Davison Ceidwadwyr, Bishop Auckland

A constituent recently attended my surgery in Bishop Auckland to disclose her serious concerns about poor communications from both the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service and the family court-appointed children’s guardian in her case. This is an extremely distressing time for her and her family, so good communication is surely key. How can the Minister ensure that my constituents will receive the support and advice they need in a timely fashion?

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

I thank my hon. Friend for being so assiduous in raising this important matter on behalf of her constituents. We are investing heavily in the family system to deal with precisely these issues. If something has gone wrong in that specific case, perhaps she will be kind enough to come to see me so that we can discuss it further.

Photo of Bambos Charalambous Bambos Charalambous Annibynnol, Enfield, Southgate

There are 2,796 prisoners with indeterminate sentences for public protection languishing in our prisons, 705 of whom are 10 years over their original tariff and 112 of whom had a tariff of less than two years and are now over tariff by 15 years or more. The MOJ’s refreshed IPP action plan clearly is not working, so what does the Secretary of State plan to do to fix this dire situation?

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

The total number of IPPs is slightly higher than that but, looking into the data, the really significant factor is that, whereas there were some 6,000 IPP prisoners in 2012, the number who have not been released is down to around 1,200. Our action plan tries to address that. Our reforms are designed to ensure that, when IPP prisoners are released, they do not face a licence period of 10 years, which can lead to them being recalled at any time. Reducing it to three years is a humane and sensible way of trying to erase this stain on the conscience of our justice system.

Photo of David Davis David Davis Ceidwadwyr, Haltemprice and Howden

Yesterday, The New Yorker published a 13,000-word inquiry into the Lucy Letby trial, which raised enormous concerns about both the logic and the competence of the statistical evidence that was a central part of the trial. The article was blocked from publication on the UK internet, I understand because of a court order. I am sure that court order was well intended, but it seems to me that it is in defiance of open justice. Will the Lord Chancellor look into this matter and report back to the House?

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

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for raising this. Court orders must be obeyed, and a person can apply to the court for them to be removed. That will need to take place in the normal course of events.

On the Lucy Letby case, I simply make the point that juries’ verdicts must be respected. If there are grounds for an appeal, that should take place in the normal way.

Photo of Sarah Dyke Sarah Dyke Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol, Somerton and Frome

Taunton Deane magistrates court had 1,027 outstanding criminal cases in the first quarter of 2023, and the Justice Secretary’s own constituency, as of the end of December, had 1,954. These delays are letting down victims, their families, witnesses and defendants, while undermining public confidence in the criminal justice system. How does he plan to tackle this backlog? Will he provide those working tirelessly in our courts with adequate support and resources to carry out their duties?

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

We have increased capacity in the system. We have opened 20 Nightingale courts, including Cirencester Crown court in my county of Gloucestershire. We have increased the number of judges by 1,000. We have put up to £141 million into legal aid. We have raised the retirement age. And we are ensuring there is support for victims, including through independent sexual violence advisers and independent domestic violence advisers, and by introducing a rape support helpline, and so on. We are doing everything we can to support victims, to increase capacity in the system and to heal the damage caused by covid.

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

The Lord Chancellor will know that there is particular concern about the growth of the remand population in our prisons, which causes great disruption. He will also know that the senior presiding judge and others are taking innovative measures to list remand cases, but will the Lord Chancellor confirm that, to support that, there will be no financial cap on sitting days in the Crown courts?

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

As always, my hon. and learned Friend gets to the heart of the matter. Before the pandemic, around 9,000 people were in custody awaiting trial. The figure is now closer to 16,000, which plainly has an impact. It is because we did not get rid of jury trials, which was the right thing to do. I am grateful to the Lord Chief Justice and the senior presiding judge for considering remote hearings of bail applications, to ensure that more lawyers are able to do the cases. Having enough practitioners, as well as sitting days, is critical, and both will have my attention.

Photo of Fleur Anderson Fleur Anderson Shadow Minister (Northern Ireland)

Last week’s letter to the Justice Secretary from the chief inspector of prisons again highlighted the dreadful conditions in Wandsworth Prison. Will the Secretary of State take urgent steps to end the overcrowding?

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

The hon. Lady is right to raise this hard-hitting, searing report. I was interested to note that, although there is a full complement of officers, the prison simply is not delivering the regime that it should. We absolutely accept that. Of course, the high remand population is an issue at Wandsworth, but Cardiff and Liverpool have achieved fantastic results. It can be turned around, so we are responding rapidly. We have already invested heavily, and £24 million has been spent. We have already deployed extra staff at all grades, and we will be providing support. A prison standards coaching team is offering face-to-face coaching for band 3 officers, with further deployment shortly.

Photo of Shailesh Vara Shailesh Vara Ceidwadwyr, North West Cambridgeshire

I appreciate that an inquiry is being conducted regarding the Horizon scandal, but what is the Department doing to hold to account those lawyers who prosecuted sub-postmasters despite the evidence being to the contrary?

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

Anybody who appears in court, but particularly prosecutors, must be mindful of their solemn and sacred duty to disclose material to the defence that might reasonably be considered capable of undermining the case for the prosecution—that is literally the most important rule. If they failed in this case, I would expect the appropriate authorities to take robust and prompt action.

Photo of Imran Hussain Imran Hussain Llafur, Bradford East

Since I last raised this question with Ministers, it has now been estimated that there are more than 10,000 victims of the SSB Law scandal. As my hon. Friend Judith Cummins said, we are hosting an event later today to listen to those victims talk about the real impact on their lives—I extend an invitation to the Minister. Will he commit to my asks of real compensation and protection for the victims of what is now a national scandal?

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

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that kind invitation. I will consider it and respond in due course.