Justice Questions

9th July 2019

David Gauke answers MPs’ questions to the Ministry of Justice.

 

4. What steps the Government are taking to encourage divorcing couples to reconcile. [911800]

20. What steps his Department is taking to provide counselling to couples seeking a divorce. [911817]

When people make the difficult decision to divorce, the evidence suggests that counselling will often be too late at that stage. Seeking counselling would be a personal choice for those involved. For counselling to bring a change of direction, it would require the willing co-operation of both people in the marriage. We will look at the information available to people who are contemplating divorce to see whether we can strengthen signposting to marriage counselling, and our Bill will provide the opportunity for parties to reflect on the decision to divorce by introducing a minimum timeframe within the legal process. Couples who can reconcile will be able to do so.

Now that divorce is being made easier, with no-fault divorce going on the statute book, should we have parallel provision to help couples to save their marriages? I think the best way to do that would be further investment in services under section 22 of the Family Law Act 1996.

I think there is a wider debate to be had about how Government as a whole can address issues that lead to relationship breakdown. Simply funding marriage support services may not address the heart of the issue or reach the people who need help most at the right time, but I agree that there is a need to test what works to help couples to stay together, and I am happy to listen to the arguments about that.

What mediation services and contact centres are available, and what is their role?

Family mediation offers a way to resolve child or financial arrangements without litigation, and child contact centres provide safe, neutral venues where separated couples can build sustainable long-term child arrangements. In reforming the legal process for divorce, we will look to strengthen how couples are signposted to such services. My right hon. Friend refers to counselling, a service for people whose relationships are in trouble. As well as using services such as Relate, many people draw on family, friends and others they can trust. A marriage is more likely to be saveable before the legal process of divorce has begun.

Can the Minister outline what discussions have been held about offering support for counselling through charitable initiatives such as Relate to cut down waiting times from eight weeks? During that time many couples decide that their issues are irrevocable when in fact they might have been salvageable with help and support.

As I said earlier, there is a wider debate on this matter. I believe that the earlier such support can be provided, the better. When it comes to reform of divorce law, my argument is that by that stage it is often too late. In any event, the current requirement in our divorce law to attribute blame and fault makes it all the harder for marriages to be reconciled.

I think my right hon. Friend and the Government have got the approach right. Divorce is not the time to start putting difficulties in people’s way. When people get married, they know it is going to end in desertion, divorce or death; on the whole, death is the one we would choose, but preferably not as a result of too active participation by the other half.

May I reinforce what my right hon. Friend said, and ask him whether he will try to make it better known, not just in his Department but in others, that if people can get into stable households, all sorts of things go better? Poverty is reduced, anguish is reduced, life is extended and people have better lives, so times of family formation, reformation and even de-formation can lead to a better life for most people.

I do agree with my hon. Friend, and I am interested by the insights into the Bottomley household. The fact that our current divorce laws introduce conflict at the point of divorce can make the break-up of relationships more confrontational than it needs to be in what are already difficult circumstances.

I believe that the hon. Gentleman has been married for 52 years.

In sickness and in health.

I believe that to be so. [Interruption.]

And Lady Bottomley says so as well, as the hon. Gentleman pertinently observes from a sedentary position.


 

Short Sentences

5. What assessment his Department has made of the effectiveness of sentences of less than three months in reducing reoffending. [911801]

There is persuasive evidence that short custodial sentences do not work for the purposes of rehabilitation and helping some offenders to turn their backs on crime. They are highly disruptive to people’s lives, and provide little time for the Prison Service to do any meaningful rehabilitative work. In certain circumstances, community sentences are more effective in reducing reoffending and addressing offenders’ needs. Unless we tackle the underlying causes of reoffending, we cannot protect the public from being victims of crime. There is a strong case for abolishing short custodial sentences, with some exceptions, and I shall set out proposals shortly.

The Secretary of State will be pleased to know that 85% of those who responded to the Scottish Government’s consultation supported the existing presumption against short sentences, and were in favour of extending that beyond the current three-month presumption. Given that that presumption has helped to achieve a 19-year low in reconviction rates, I hope he agrees with the outcome of the consultation. Perhaps he will also tell us exactly what “shortly” means, and exactly when the UK Government intend to follow the Scottish Government’s lead on these matters, as they should on so many others.

“Shortly” means “shortly”. [Laughter.] I am not going to elaborate on that, but I will say that in considering sentencing reform it is necessary also to look more broadly at the probation system. That is why I recently announced proposals to reform probation that will inform offender management and strengthen confidence in probation. However, I advise the hon. Gentleman to watch this space.

I welcome the link that my right hon. Friend has made between sentencing and probation. Does he agree that one of the compelling arguments in favour of reform is that the vast majority of people who are given short sentences tend to be repeat petty offenders whose behaviour is often driven by a number of factors such as drug addiction, debt, alcoholism and mental health issues—which are not and cannot best be treated in a custodial setting—and that we ought to invest far more in treating those people effectively outside, in the interests of public protection as much as anything else?

I entirely agree with the Chairman of the Justice Committee. If we put people inside for a short time—for instance, prolific shoplifters—we want to address that criminality, but all that we actually do is make them more likely to reoffend and continue to be prolific criminals. Evidence shows that when it comes to reoffending rates, community sentences work better, but we need to do everything we can to ensure that they can be improved.

In the past five years, more than 300,000 prison sentences of less than a year have been handed out, but the reoffending rate among that cohort is a staggering 64.4%. The Justice Committee has repeatedly called for the abolition of short custodial sentences. I appreciate that the Secretary of State is sympathetic to that call—I note his answer to an earlier question— but may we please have swift and urgent action?

I agree with the hon. Lady’s point about the statistics—we should be led by the evidence—and I hope to make further progress on this matter in the time that is left ahead.

I very much hope that a large amount of time is left to my right hon. Friend, who has been a truly reforming Secretary of State in this area, and I endorse everything said on this question by my fellow members of the Select Committee on Justice. However, does the Secretary of State agree that it is very important that if we do have community sentences they are robust and well enforced? Given that the original question was asked by a Scottish MP, I am conscious of the fact that one in three community payback orders in Scotland are ignored by criminals.

My hon. Friend is right to highlight that point, and much though I believe that we should make rapid progress in this area, I think that we should do so in a way that ensures the system works properly, and I do think that the link with, for example, strengthening community sentences and the way the probation system works is very important. I hope that we are moving in a direction whereby we can make progress and we focus on ensuring that these prolific petty offenders do not reoffend and we are led by the evidence on what is the most effective way to achieve that, and my sense is that there is a large cross-party consensus on this point.

When the Secretary of State decided to bring back 80% of community rehabilitation company activity into the National Probation Service that was welcome news, and I thank him for that, but he has left the community payback and accredited programmes in a different place. If he does not intend to bring that back into the core service, too, will he at least commit to having it commissioned as locally as possible?

Again, we have been led by the evidence. Offender management is not working as we need it to work with regard to the CRCs, but some of the other activity CRCs do is done very well: there is good innovation and good measures are taken, and we should recognise that. So I believe the private and voluntary sectors have a significant role to play, but it is different from the role played until now. In terms of commissioning and so on, I believe we need to ensure that reflects local circumstances and that is part of our plans.

 

Probation Reform

8. What recent progress he has made on probation reform. [911804]

I am pleased to have announced plans to streamline probation delivery, through the National Probation Service, to build on the role of the private and voluntary sectors in driving innovation and to better support skilled probation officers. These changes will allow the public, private and voluntary sectors to play to their strengths and ensure stronger supervision and support for offenders. We are now developing the commercial and operational frameworks that will underlie the future system, and we are planning for the transition. We are undertaking a full programme of market engagement to inform our plans, in addition to engagement with probation staff and trade unions.

By any stretch of the imagination, the changes to the probation service have been a shambles, fragmenting the system and increasing risk to the community at large. A simple “sorry” may also help the Minister’s answer, but will he give an indication of the cost of cancelling the current contracts next year? What will be the replacement costs for the state or other providers in taking over those services?

First, “Transforming Rehabilitation” introduced bold reforms, and steps have been taken to ensure there is more innovation within our system, but I recognise that significant elements of it are not working as needed, which is why we have made the changes.

On the right hon. Gentleman’s point about costs, it is worth bearing in mind that we originally expected to spend £3.1 billion on community rehabilitation companies over a seven-year period, and we now expect to spend £2.7 billion over the same period. In other words, over the lifetime of the contracts, we now expect to spend £405 million less on CRCs than originally forecast.

Probation works best when working with local partners. A brilliant charity in my constituency is owed £1,800 as a result of Working Links going into administration. This is a significant sum for the Dracaena Centre in Falmouth. Will the Secretary of State intervene to ensure it is paid for its excellent work?

We will look at the specific case my hon. Friend raises, but we have already intervened to ensure those charities that have lost out as a consequence of what happened with Working Links receive support. I will make sure I look at her individual case.

Considering that many community rehabilitation companies are now discredited for prioritising profit over public safety, how will the Government hold them to account when mismanagement of their contractual responsibility for probation comes to light?

To be fair to the CRCs, I am not sure that any of them is taking steps to get profits—but perhaps to reduce their losses. In truth, the shareholders of CRCs have somewhat subsidised probation services in recent years. We will hold the CRCs to their contractual obligations and ensure they deliver what they are contractually obliged to deliver.

 
 

Leaving the EU: No Deal

9. What steps his Department has taken to prepare for the UK leaving the EU without a deal; and if he will make a statement. [911805]

Our justice system is respected across the world. That was the case before we joined the EU, and it will continue to be the case after we leave. The Department has taken all necessary steps to ensure we are prepared for a deal across MOJ interests and for the possibility of a no-deal exit, to the extent it is possible to do so.

This includes working closely with other Departments to ensure that essential services continue; working with suppliers of key products to ensure essential supplies are in place; providing the courts and judiciary with additional training and resources to enable them to prepare for possible changes; and ensuring that contingencies are in place for any potential traffic disruption in the south-east of England.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer and welcome the strong statements he has made recently on a possible no-deal Brexit. Does he agree that, regardless of how much preparation is done, the implications of no deal for our justice systems would be dire?

What I would say to the hon. Gentleman is that leaving the EU without a deal risks some significant impacts across the justice system, including potential disruption to goods and services to our prisons; an increase in case load and case complexity across court jurisdictions; increased pressure on our courts system; the loss of access to several law enforcement tools, including the loss of data exchange tools, making it more difficult to protect the public; and market access impacts on our legal sector, restricting or removing our ability to operate in EU markets. So do I think a no-deal Brexit is a good idea? No, I do not.

I commend the Secretary of State for his honesty, but I wonder whether he would pass on his knowledge on this subject to the two candidates to be the next Prime Minister, because, despite their recent and mercifully brief visits to Scotland, they seem unaware of the impact on the safety of people living in Scotland and across the UK if we leave the EU without a deal. Has he spoken to them to explain that if we do not have the use of the European arrest warrant, it will be extremely difficult to apprehend people who commit violent crime in this country and then go back to the continent, whereas at the moment this can be done within a matter of days?

Both candidates for the leadership of my party have made it clear that they do not want a no-deal Brexit, and I wish them well—[Interruption.] I understand that the chances are “a million to one”, so I wish them well in their endeavours.

It would seem that the Secretary of State and I must be reading different newspapers. In an earlier answer, he mentioned problems of data protection if we leave without a deal. Has he explained to the candidates to be Prime Minister that leaving without a deal means we would lose membership of Europol and, because of data protection rules, that would mean that not only would the police no longer have access to data held by Europol, but information that Police Scotland have currently been providing to Europol will be removed from Europol databases, thus prejudicing ongoing investigations? Does he agree that it is not acceptable for people in Scotland to have their safety so prejudiced?

First, I can confirm that I suspect we do read different newspapers, but I agree that the loss of access to various law enforcement tools would make it more difficult to protect the public. I am sure there are ways in which these issues can be addressed, but a much better way forward would be to leave the EU—this is where we disagree—with a deal.

A no-deal Brexit poses a serious threat to our justice system; ending access to the European arrest warrant and criminal database would leave us all less safe. The Justice Secretary agrees about those no-deal dangers, but I also fear that no deal is a stepping stone to a free trade deal with the United States of America. Labour’s justice spokesperson in the Lords recently asked whether our prisons would be up for grabs for American corporations in any post-Brexit free trade deal with the US, and the Government’s vague answer alarmed me. So will the Justice Secretary clearly state today that our prisons should not be part of any post-Brexit free trade deal with the USA?

First, I think I read different newspapers from the hon. Gentleman, although I do read the Morning Star when he has an article in it. [Interruption.] Which is not quite every day, although it sometimes feels like it. On trade deals with the US, it is the intention of this Government, and, I suspect, of the next Government, to enter into a trade deal with the US, but we would want to do so in a way that protects public services.

 
 

Topical Questions

T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. [911822]

The Government intend to bring forward legislation when parliamentary time allows to create a Helen’s law. We propose to change the life sentence release test to ensure that, in a case where an offender has been sentenced for murder and the remains of the victim have not been found, the Parole Board must take account of any failure or refusal to disclose the location of those remains when assessing whether such an offender is safe to release. Although the Parole Board already considers such a failure or refusal as part of its risk assessment procedures, our proposal will set that out in statute. I pay tribute to Marie McCourt for her tireless work on the Helen’s law campaign and the hon. Member for St Helens North (Conor McGinn) for similar such work.

Last month, in a letter to me, the Secretary of State revealed that more than £26 million of public money has been wasted in a single year fighting and losing personal independence payment appeals. That is a vast sum, in addition to an appeals process that is forcing many disabled people to wait for their decisions. Does he believe that we are getting good value for public money, or does he accept Labour’s view that this is not only cruel but wasteful, and that it shows that we need to scrap these unfit-for-purpose assessments?

It is important that, where we have a benefit such as personal independence payments, we make an assessment as to whether those payments are going to the right people, and that, if there is an appeal against that, those appeals should be defended unless we believe that a mistake has been made. It is worth bearing in mind that, from memory, something like 4% of PIP assessments are overturned.

Hansard
 

Last week I exposed the fact that the number of homeless women going to prison has almost doubled in the past four years. What is especially shocking is that almost half of all women now going to prison are homeless. This is an appalling indictment of our broken justice system. Prison is all too often the very worst place for people who desperately need help to tackle the underlying problems of homelessness, poverty, mental ill health and substance addiction that led to them being jailed in the first place. Is the Minister concerned that our prison system is targeting the poor, the marginalised and the vulnerable?

The hon. Gentleman sets out many of the reasons why we brought in the female offender strategy last year. We are seeking to address the root causes of criminality, which are very often—even more so with women—to do with mental health issues, as well as the fact that a very large proportion of women offenders are victims of domestic abuse. It is right that we have a female offender strategy that focuses on non-custodial measures; part of that will be women’s residential centres.

Hansard
 

Recent Ministry of Justice research shows the increasing concentration of crime in the hands of a few prolific criminals, but written answers that I have received in the past few weeks suggest that too few are being jailed. Will my right hon. Friend look to review the sentencing of prolific offenders?

This is one of the rare occasions when I have to say that I disagree with my hon. Friend. For prolific offenders of minor crimes, it is my view that a non-custodial approach is the right one, but we need to ensure that that works effectively. That is why I have announced reforms to probation. One problem we have at the moment is that such offenders get a short custodial sentence, which only disrupts lives but does not allow any opportunity to do any work on rehabilitation.

Hansard
 

T3. I agree with the Secretary of State’s last point, but in order to achieve that he will need to reverse the trend that has seen a fall in drug and alcohol rehabilitation requirement orders from 170,000 five years ago to 120,000 this year. Will he look at that point? [911824]

I certainly will. We have recently announced an extension of the community sentence treatment requirement pilots. That is the direction that we need to be going in to address some of the substance abuse and mental health issues that often lie behind these prolific offenders who do cause great difficulties for society. If we want to reduce reoffending, we need to focus on that group and take effective, evidence-led measures.

Hansard
 

On behalf of my constituent Linda Jones, may I thank and congratulate the Justice team, from the bottom of my heart, for bringing forward Helen’s law? Let us collectively hope that making parole harder to achieve unless a perpetrator reveals the whereabouts of the body will lead to the discovery of the remains of Danielle Jones—Linda Jones’s daughter—as well as those of Helen McCourt and all the other victims of such tragedies.

I thank my hon. Friend, who has been tireless on this cause on behalf of his constituent. Having met Marie McCourt, I know the pain that is suffered by those relatives who never get the opportunity to say farewell to their loved one. My hon. Friend has been making that case very, very forcefully, and I thank him for that.

Hansard
 

As we head into the comprehensive spending review, what pitch will my right hon. Friend be making to the Treasury relating to prisons and schemes that have been successful in reducing reoffending?

My hon. Friend raises a very important point about reducing reoffending. I hope that there can be a focus in the comprehensive spending review on what the evidence leads us to do in reducing reoffending and prioritising areas that are effective in bringing down crime. He hits the nail on the head.

Hansard
 

The Non-Contentious Probate (Fees) Order 2018 went through Committee at the beginning of the year but has still not been subject to a vote here. Given that the proposed increase, for no additional work, from £215 to potentially £6,000 has been described as an abuse of the Lord Chancellor’s fee-levying powers, has he had second thoughts and decided to reject this iniquitous proposal?

I think the Government will be responding to that in due course.

Hansard
 

T8. I have an urgent topical question for the Secretary of State. He has always been very good on victim support, and he will be relieved that my question is not about miscarriages of justice. Brake in my constituency works with victims of road crashes and road injuries. It is a very good and unique group, but I have heard that it is losing its grant from the Ministry of Justice. Why would that be? [911829]

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words. Let me look at that particular issue and, if I may, I will write to him.

Hansard
 

In his speech at Mansion House last week, the Secretary of State rightly and powerfully paid tribute to the integrity and value of an independent judiciary to this country. Will he make it possible for that speech to be disseminated to all Members of this House, so that everyone here recognises the responsibility that sits upon us to treat the judiciary with respect and support its independence from political or other attacks at all times?

I thank my hon. Friend for those remarks. I believe it is very important to this country that we respect the independence of the judiciary, and the rule of law is at the heart of what we are about as a country. I can tell him that my speech is available on the gov.uk website—I hope that this announcement will not result in that website crashing, but I assure the House that it can be found there.

Hansard

 

Surgeries

David holds regular surgeries at various places in the constituency, including Rickmansworth, South Oxhey, Berkhamsted and Tring. 
 

Call 01923 771781 to make an appointment.

Record of surgeries

 

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