Justice Questions

6th March 2018

Court Closures

1. What recent assessment his Department has made of the effect of court closures on access to justice. [904186]

2. What recent assessment his Department has made of the effect of court closures on access to justice. [904188]

Maintaining access to justice is a key principle when changes to the estate are proposed. Before issuing our consultation on court closures in January, we assessed the impact on access to justice—principally, the changes in travel time for court users. The decision to close a court is never taken lightly, and is made only after full public consultation and where we are satisfied that access to justice is maintained. Our reform programme will improve access to justice for many users, while allowing many needs to be met without the need to attend court. Online solutions and video hearings will make access to justice easier.

The Minister’s experience is not happening in my constituency, where Buxton court closed in 2016. Some of my constituents now have to travel 40 miles on a one-and-a-half-hour trip to Chesterfield court. The police say that it now takes them a whole day to take someone to court, whereas it used to take less than half a day, and that is having an impact on the number of offenders they can bring to court and on justice in my area. Please will the Minister take this into account in the current consultation?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her comments, but we also have to take into account the fact that 41% of courts and tribunals used less than half their available hearing capacity during the financial year 2016-17, and across the country courts are utilised at 58% of their capacity. In those circumstances, where resources are scarce we have to make decisions about the reforms we undertake.

I have been raising concerns about the closure of Lambeth county court for the past two years, and the court finally closed in December. My constituents facing the repossession of their homes must now attend Clerkenwell county court, which lawyers report to be a chaotic environment, which is impossible to contact by telephone, where cases and files frequently go missing and where the number of respondents failing to attend is rocketing. When will the Justice Secretary take action to address this unacceptable situation?

The reality is that we are undertaking a series of reforms, making much greater use of digital technology and increasing access to online ways of dealing with this. This is an important modernisation that the courts system needs.

Very sadly, we have lost our magistrates court in Kettering, which, I have to say to the Government, was a mistake. It means that magistrates, the police and witnesses are all having to travel further. The closure of court sends a poor signal to the magistracy that they are not valued. Can we get rid of this ridiculous age limit, whereby magistrates have to retire at the age of 70?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this point, on which I have received representations. This is consistent with what happens elsewhere within the judiciary, but I am conscious that it will continue to be a matter of some debate.

The Government are continuing to cut court staff, close courts and sign contracts worth millions of pounds for their digitisation programme. These are huge changes, which will have an impact on our courts for decades. Will the Minister promise not to close any more courts or sign contracts until the courts Bill is published and the matter has been debated fully in this Chamber?

I hope to be able to bring forward further news on the courts Bill in the near future, but I am not going to give the undertaking the hon. Lady seeks. It is important that we continue to look to get the best out of the resources we have. If that means reforms here in making greater use of digital technology and ensuring that our court estate is as rational and efficient as possible, we will need to continue to do that.

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Prisoner Work Experience

7. How many prisoners have undertaken work experience before release in the last 12 months. [904193]

In 2016-17, offenders completed 16 million hours of work and there were, on average, 11,200 offenders working in prison workshops. In the same period, 2,048 individuals were released on temporary licence for work-related purposes. The New Futures Network will aim to get even more prisoners working during their sentence and to see that that work leads to employment on release.

I know that the Secretary of State is new in office, but people at Ranby Prison have been waiting for two years now to be able to get on with creating the sports facilities that they are capable of building inside— the seating, the dugouts for community sports, and even the changing rooms—but the one thing they have not been given is the Secretary of State’s permission to proceed with doing this commercial work. Could I incentivise him with perhaps a cup of tea afterwards, to concentrate his mind on why he needs to make this decision urgently?

Certainly, the prospect of a cup of tea with the hon. Gentleman does concentrate the mind, and I would be delighted to accept his invitation. We are trying to ensure that we have a prison system that encourages people to progress by having opportunities to gain experience of work, and I am keen to do that in this post.

The hon. Gentleman’s offer is an interesting one. It might also be thought by some to be a divisible proposition.

The Secretary of State’s speech this morning and his emphasis on more use of release on temporary licence is extremely welcome and constructive. Will he bear in mind, though, that the Through the Gate programme currently involves careers and employment advice being given only towards the very end of a prisoner’s sentence, whereas all the evidence suggests that that should happen much earlier?

I thank the Chair of the Justice Committee for his comments. I do want to look at whether we can expand release on temporary licence and provide these opportunities more widely. On his second point, I am keen to ensure that we provide as much support as possible and make it clear that there is a second chance for people who have gone to prison. If they abide by the rules and comply with the system, we want to give them the support to turn their lives around.

Will the Secretary of State consider what can be done to facilitate prisoners in applying for universal credit before they are released, so that they can receive the support of jobcentre and other staff immediately on release to move into paid work as quickly as possible?

The hon. Lady raises a good point, and rightly so. I am keen to do precisely as she suggests. A lot of work already goes on in prisons with, for example, work coaches providing this support. Part of the challenge is about access to emails. We need to look very carefully at that because it raises a large number of questions.

Work experience in prison that leads to work on release is proven to reduce reoffending. Does the Secretary of State therefore believe that, while we rightly praise employers who offer ex-offenders work experience, we need to call out those employers who have a blanket ban on employing ex-offenders unrelated to any reasonable or fair risk assessment of doing so?

I agree with my hon. Friend. I have seen surveys suggesting that some 50% of employers simply will not engage. It is frustrating that when one speaks to employers who do take on ex-offenders, their experience is frequently very positive indeed. If we can increasingly build a culture whereby these offenders are given that opportunity, that is good for the offenders and good for society, as it will reduce reoffending.

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Leaving the EU: Legal System

9. What assessment his Department has made of the effect of the UK leaving the EU on the operation of the legal system in each jurisdiction of the UK. [904196]

We are seeking a new deep and special partnership with the EU that works for the whole United Kingdom. Of course, Scotland and Northern Ireland have distinct legal systems. That is why, in the negotiations on civil judicial co-operation, market access for our legal services and criminal justice, I want a deal that works for Scotland and Northern Ireland as well as England and Wales. That is also why my Department is meeting regularly with the devolved Administrations to look at the ways in which our legal and justice systems are affected by EU exit.

Unlike the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, the Scottish Government’s legal continuity Bill gives the Scottish Parliament an enhanced role in scrutinising legal changes to devolved laws due to Brexit. What is the Secretary of State doing to urge his Cabinet colleagues to make similar provision for this Parliament for reserved matters in the EU withdrawal Bill?

In terms of what is described as the continuity Bill, I am not sure, in all honesty, how helpful or useful that will prove to be. The reality is that there is very close scrutiny in this House of the measures the Government are taking and the negotiations we are having.


The hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont) has the next question, so he does not have long to wait. We are saving him up for the delectation of the House. It will be a short wait.

Is the Secretary of State looking forward to April next year, when each of the jurisdictions across the United Kingdom will be able to fashion and formulate legislation in keeping with the demands and the requirements of the people of the United Kingdom?

The hon. Gentleman states his position very clearly and forthrightly. As we leave the European Union, new flexibilities will arise for all parts of the United Kingdom.

Unlike the EU withdrawal Bill, the Scottish Government’s legal continuity Bill contains a power to enable devolved law in Scotland to keep pace with EU law after Brexit, where appropriate. Does the Secretary of State agree that similar provisions should be made in the EU withdrawal Bill for reserved matters and for the benefit of the English legal system?

The extent to which this Parliament decides that it wishes to replicate provisions of EU law is a matter for this Parliament, and whether or not we put that in the EU withdrawal Bill, that freedom will continue to exist for this Parliament.

Another point of contrast between the Scottish Government’s legal continuity Bill and the EU withdrawal Bill is that the Scottish Government’s Bill incorporates the charter of fundamental rights into Scots law in so far as it applies to devolved matters. What is the Secretary of State doing to make sure that everyone in the United Kingdom keeps their rights guaranteed by the charter, regardless of which jurisdiction they live in?

When the charter of fundamental rights was brought in, the argument was made at the time that it was essentially replicating rights set out elsewhere in other parts of EU treaties. To the extent that that fundamentally changes matters, there is certainly a debate to be had about it.

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Leaving the EU: UK Legal System

10. What plans the Government have to ensure that the UK legal system operates effectively after the UK leaves the EU. [904197]

20. What plans the Government have to ensure that the UK legal system operates effectively after the UK leaves the EU. [904207]

21. What plans the Government have to ensure that the UK legal system operates effectively after the UK leaves the EU. [904208]

It is absolutely right that we provide legal certainty for businesses, families and individuals as we leave the European Union. That is why, as the Prime Minister said in her speech on Friday, part of our future partnership with the EU will be to have effective reciprocal arrangements with the EU to deal with cross-border legal disputes in civil and family matters. The best way to deliver that co-operation is with a close and comprehensive agreement between the UK and the EU that sets out coherent common rules.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. Leaving the EU is likely to lead to additional workload for the UK legal system. What additional resources have been made available to his Department and to the legal and courts system more generally to ensure that they are fully prepared?

My hon. Friend is right that we should be prepared. He will be aware that the Treasury has made another £3 billion of extra funding available to Departments for 2018 to 2020. We are in discussion with the Treasury about the allocation for the justice system, and we hope to agree it soon.

As we leave the European Union, many powers over many aspects of our legal and judicial enforcement will return from Brussels. What discussions have the Government had with the Scottish Government on how such policies will be implemented after Brexit, and does the Secretary of State agree that the SNP Government’s disruptive continuity Bill will do nothing but add to the uncertainty in our country?

We are committed to securing a deal that works for the entire United Kingdom—for Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and all parts of England. The Government expect that the outcome of leaving the EU will significantly increase the decision making of each devolved Administration. I can tell the House that I wrote to Michael Matheson last month to reaffirm the Department’s commitment to continue meaningful engagement with the Scottish Government.

Professional services, including legal services, are clearly one of the key exports of this country. What is my right hon. Friend doing to ensure that there will be new arrangements for the recognition of legal standards and qualifications?

My hon. Friend raises a good question. We recognise that this is an important right to protect UK nationals, so that they can continue with their chosen line of work. It has already been agreed that those who have received a recognition decision or applied for one before the withdrawal date will be able to have their qualifications recognised after exit, including lawyers. Talks on many key issues, including the mutual recognition of professional qualifications, will continue into the next phase of negotiations. We will seek to reach an agreement with the EU on parts of MRPQ that are not seen as in scope of the withdrawal negotiations, such as home title practice. The Prime Minister has been clear that she wants EU nationals in the UK and UK nationals in the EU to be able to continue their lives broadly as now.

Order. The hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry) has a not wholly dissimilar inquiry at Question 19, and he is welcome to come in on this question if he is so inclined, because we are not likely to reach Question 19.

19. I would be delighted to do so. Thank you very much, Mr Speaker.As the Prime Minister has made a number of concessions with regard to the European Court of Justice after Brexit and given that the Scottish Government’s legal continuity Bill provides that, when exercising devolved jurisdiction, Scottish courts may have regard to the decisions of the ECJ, is it not time to amend clause 6 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill to the same effect? [904206]

On clause 6 and this question more widely, let us be clear: we are leaving the EU, so the jurisdiction of the ECJ will end, but EU law and the decisions of the ECJ will continue to affect us. For a start, the ECJ determines whether agreements the EU has struck are legal under the EU’s own law. If, as part of our future partnership, Parliament passes an identical law to an EU law, it makes sense for our courts to look at the appropriate ECJ judgments, so that we interpret those laws consistently. We have to remember, however, that our Parliament will remain ultimately sovereign. It could decide not to accept such rules, but there would be consequences for our membership of the relevant agencies and linked market access rights.

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Supreme Court Judgment: Metropolitan Police Commissioner

12. Whether he has discussed with the Home Secretary the implications for Government policies of the Supreme Court judgment on the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis v. DSD and another. [904199]

This case is a matter for the Home Office and the police. However, I understand that the Home Office is working closely with the National Police Chiefs Council to understand the impact of the ruling and monitor current claims.

Failures to disclose digital evidence have led to the collapse of four rape trials in recent months. Does the Secretary of State agree that, in the light of the landmark ruling on the Worboys case, the lack of digital capacity now exposes the police to huge financial liability and risks breaching the human rights of victims on an unprecedented scale? Will he make representations to the Home Office to carry out a full resource impact assessment of the decision?

As the Attorney General has said, disclosure in cases is a question of public authorities performing the roles that they should and doing their jobs properly. Clearly, it is of great concern that there have been cases in which that appears not to have happened.

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Topical Questions

T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. [904211]

For prisons to be effective, we must get the basics right. This means creating prisons that are safe, secure and decent. It also means tackling the ringleaders of serious organised crime, so that they cannot continue to profit from their crimes and ruin people’s lives through drugs, deaths and violence from behind bars. I can announce that we are investing an extra £14 million to tackle serious organised crime. This includes creating new intelligence and serious organised crime teams to support work with the National Crime Agency, and enhancing our intelligence and information-gathering capacity across the country. I will also look at how we categorise prisoners to make sure that we are using our most secure prisons to tackle ongoing criminality behind bars. At the same time, we will reset the system of incentives in our prisons, so that they work much more in the favour of prisoners who play by the rules and want to turn their lives around, while coming down harder on those who show no intention of doing so.

Order. Too long.

The number of foreign national offenders from EU countries in our prisons remains at around 4,000. As part of the negotiations on leaving the EU, is my right hon. Friend liaising with other Government Departments, including the Home Office and the Department for Exiting the European Union, to ensure that we can deport more of the thousands of EU nationals who are in our prisons and remove these dangerous people from Britain?

Since 2010 we have removed more than 40,000 foreign national offenders from our prisons, immigration removal centres and the community. A range of removal mechanisms exist that enable foreign offenders to be returned to their home countries, and we are working closely with the Department for Exiting the European Union and the Home Office as we consider our future criminal justice arrangements with the EU, with the aim of carrying on our close working relationship.

In a formal statement, the previous Secretary of State for Justice said that the Grenfell inquiry would

“get to the truth and see justice done”.

For that to be the case, Grenfell survivors and the bereaved families must have full confidence in it, so to tackle the obvious current lack of trust, does the Minister agree with survivors and bereaved families who are calling for a broad inquiry panel, as there was in the watershed inquiry into the death of Stephen Lawrence?

I believe that the processes have been set up, that the inquiry led by Sir Martin Moore-Bick is the right approach and that the focus should be on ensuring that the inquiry can make progress rather than trying in any way to undermine it.


T6. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, as he reforms the justice system, a system of incentives could help prisoners with good behaviour records and reduce reoffending in the future? [904216]

I very much agree. Indeed, I advanced that argument this morning in a speech to the Royal Society of Arts. If prisoners are abiding by the rules and complying with what is required of them, governors should have more flexibility to reward them with additional privileges. I think that that could help to move people in the right direction and change behaviour in a positive way.


What are the Government doing to reverse the dramatic fall in community sentencing, which has nearly halved in the past decade, with a particularly sharp drop in recent years?

We have seen an increased use of suspended sentences, but the hon. Lady is right that we must do more. We want to work closely with community rehabilitation companies and the National Probation Service, because the judiciary must have confidence in non-custodial sentences as well as custodial sentences.


We need compulsory prisoner transfer agreements to send foreign national offenders back to prison in their own country. Are the Government seeking to sign any new such agreements? If so, with which countries?

As I said to my right hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel), in the last few years, something like 40,000 foreign national offenders have been returned to their own countries. We continue to seek to sign additional agreements so we can continue to make progress with this.


Last week the Justice Committee produced an excellent report highlighting some of the issues around virtual courts. We might have a virtual Foreign Secretary today, but the Committee raised some important issues, so why is the Secretary of State rushing to close courts such as that in Cambridge when we are yet to have a wider discussion about virtual courts?

As I said in reply to the very first question of this session, it is important that we make progress in using the court estate as sensibly as possible. It is underused, and when resources are scarce, it is important that we use them more efficiently. It is also right that we make advances in using digital technology so that access to justice becomes easier.


Last weekend a prison officer at HMP Bedford was rushed to hospital with a serious brain injury inflicted by a prisoner. Other serious incidents occurred over the weekend, such as prison officers running for their lives to hide from an out-of-control prisoner. The weekend before, five prison officers were taken to A&E due to injuries inflicted by prisoners. Will a prison officer have to die before this Government act to keep prison staff safe in the line of duty?

The events in Bedford at the weekend were deeply disturbing and the sympathy of the whole House goes out to that prison officer and his family. Violence against prison officers is at an unacceptable level. There were 8,000 incidents last year and, as I set out in a speech this morning, we must take this incredibly seriously. We must recognise that the driver of a lot of this violence is drugs, and that the driver of a lot of drugs in prison is serious organised crime. I want to ensure we do everything we can to address that, because prison officers do a great job and it is far too dangerous for them.


The Secretary of State will know that even in the best justice systems there are miscarriages of justice. Will he therefore pay attention to the fact that so many people who are later found to be innocent and have their sentences quashed, having spent years in prison, never get any compensation?

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. If he wants to raise a specific case, I am happy to meet him to discuss it.



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