Justice Questions

23rd January 2018

David Gauke answers questions to the Ministry of Justice.

Leaving the EU: Legal Systems

Neil Gray (Airdrie and Shotts) (SNP)

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]

Drew Hendry (Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey) (SNP)

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]

Ben Bradley (Mansfield) (Con)

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.

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Victim Impact Statements

Tom Pursglove (Corby) (Con)

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.

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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]

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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Topical Questions

T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. [903473]

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.

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?

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.

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T5. 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? [903477]

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.

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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?

We will be reporting to the House in due course.

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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?

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.

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