Justice Questions

9th October 2018

David Gauke responds to questions from MPs to the Ministry of Justice.

Offenders and Employment

3. What steps the Government are taking to help offenders find employment immediately after they leave prison. [906987]

15. What steps the Government are taking to help offenders find employment immediately after they leave prison. [907003]

16. What steps the Government are taking to help offenders find employment immediately after they leave prison. [907004]

In May we published the education and employment strategy, which will set each prisoner on a path to employment, with prison education and work geared towards employment on release from the outset. Since publication of the strategy, we are working with about 70 new organisations that have registered an interest in working with offenders.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s response. Given that we have a shortage of about 60,000 HGV drivers in this country—it is a good job, paying a decent wage—does my right hon. Friend think that there is an opportunity in his strategy to work with industry bodies and other Government Departments to deliver a pathway for ex-offenders to train, get their HGV licence and be able to walk into a job on day one when they walk through the prison gates?

My right hon. Friend is right to raise the point. My hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies) has also raised that point on the Floor of the House, and we are working on proposals to do precisely that. Getting offenders into work makes them less likely to reoffend and enables them to contribute to society. It is something that we should absolutely aspire to.

Despite progress in some prisons, too many prisoners still leave custody without a bank account, which is liable to increase the incidence of reoffending. As part of the ongoing review of probation services, will the Secretary of State look at what more could be done in prisons to ensure that this most basic of facilities is held by all prisoners before they are released?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. It is worth pointing out that the offender banking programme ensures that prisons that release a significant number of prisoners have a relationship with a commercial bank to enable prisoners to open a basic bank account in the last six months of their sentence. A record number of accounts—6,500—were opened in 2017. He is right to highlight the matter.

The Right Course is a programme set up by celebrity maître d’ Fred Sirieix, which helps train prisoners to run prison restaurants and therefore qualify for jobs once they have left prison. Will the Minister meet me and Fred to discuss how similar programmes can be expanded?

I will be very happy to do so. It is an important point. I am pleased to hear about the work that Fred Sirieix is undertaking, and I will be happy to meet with him.

The Secretary of State is correct to say that it is through employment that we often have the best chance to reduce and stop reoffending. What discussions has he had with his counterpart in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy about mainstreaming incentives to employee ex-offenders in apprenticeship and internship strategies?

We work across government on this matter and are considering a number of proposals across government, including with BEIS, on how we can encourage employers in this area, including on apprenticeships. Let me make a point I have made before: employers are increasingly looking at employing ex-offenders. We should all welcome that, and I would be supportive of any constructive steps to progress this.

The biggest employer in Britain today is the Secretary of State and other Ministers, through themselves in their Departments and through the suppliers that they use. What steps has he taken to improve employment opportunities for offenders within his remit?

That is a good point. One thing we announced when I launched the education and employment strategy was the fact that the public sector—the civil service—was taking people on. We had a pilot in the north-west of England, which we are now extending to other parts of the United Kingdom. The Prison Service also takes on ex-offenders. The right hon. Gentleman is right to highlight this, and the public sector has a role to play in the area, too.

Five years ago, the Government sold off half the probation service, giving the justification that “through the gate” services would be improved. That aim has not been met by that project, and neither have any of the other aims described at the time. Is it not time to bring probation back together?

The reoffending rate has actually fallen since then, but we recognise that issues need to be addressed. That is why earlier this year I announced a series of reforms to the probation system, including spending an additional £22 million on “through the gate” services to address this specific point.

One problem with “through the gate” is not who delivers it, but the fact that too often the interventions start so late on in the prisoner’s career. If six months is appropriate in terms of opening bank accounts—sensibly, it is—it is not sensible that resettlement interviews and work should be started at least at that time, if not earlier, rather than at 12 weeks or so, as we currently have it?

My hon. Friend, the Chairman of the Select Committee on Justice, raises an interesting point. The point I make to him is that we need to make sure that this system is working. There is scope for improvement, and, as I say, we have announced additional expenditure in this area, but he is right to say that this is not about who does it, but how it is done. There are steps we can take to improve it.

Prison officers play a vital role in equipping offenders for their release, including by helping them prepare for work or education on the outside. In his speech to the Tory party conference, the Justice Secretary committed to recruiting more prison officers to fill the huge gap created by his Government’s austerity cuts. So can he guarantee that by the end of this Parliament there will be the same number of frontline officers in our prisons as there were in 2010?

What I can guarantee is that we are increasing the numbers—they have gone up by 3,500 in the past two years. That is enabling us to implement a key worker strategy, so that prison officers have the ability to spend more time with prisoners and can build that personal relationship, providing the support and advice necessary. That is an important step forward and I am pleased we are able to do it.

 

Sentences: Reoffending Reduction

5. What assessment his Department has made of the effectiveness of sentences of less than three months in reducing reoffending. [906989]

18. What assessment his Department has made of the effectiveness of sentences of less than three months in reducing reoffending. [907006]

19. What assessment his Department has made of the effectiveness of sentences of less than three months in reducing reoffending. [907007]

21. What assessment his Department has made of the effectiveness of sentences of less than 12 months in reducing reoffending. [907009]

As I have said recently, there is persuasive evidence that short custodial sentences do not work in terms of rehabilitation. In certain circumstances, community sentences are more effective in the reduction of reoffending and therefore keeping the public safe. The reoffending rate of offenders who serve fewer than 12 months is around 65%, but earlier research has shown the reoffending rate for similar offenders who receive a community penalty to be lower. We will look at what more we can do to emphasise that short custodial sentences should be viewed as a last resort.

The Secretary of State may be aware that the rate of women reoffending and being recalled to prison is higher than that of men, with three out of every five women offenders being recalled or re-prosecuted and sent back to prison. There is now a real need to implement the female offender strategy and ensure that women are given as much support as they can be given. There is also a real need for the Secretary of State to take action on short-term offences and look into other ways to sentence women, because the current approach simply is not working.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his remarks. He referred to the female offender strategy; as he will be aware, its focus is on alternatives to custody, particularly for minor offences. There are particular issues for females offenders in respect of the nature of the offences and the issues that female offenders face, so it is right that we implement the new strategy.

Over the past five years, the use of community sentences has declined, and it has declined fastest for theft and drugs offences. Does the Secretary of State think that prison is the best place for people with drug addictions and shoplifting convictions? If not, how is he going to reverse that trend?

Often, it is not the right place, which is why my hon. Friend the Prisons Minister and I have been clear that we need to consider alternatives to custody and explore what more we can do with community sentences. In some cases, the issue is getting to the heart of the problem, which often might be drug dependency and so on. Some encouraging pilots are ongoing in respect of community sentence treatment requirements. Those are some of the steps that we are taking. I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s support for our approach.

Short-term sentences are catastrophic for reoffending rates and if the Government are serious about reducing both crime and our prison population, they must recognise the importance of early intervention. With the Home Office now pursuing a public health approach to violent crime, will the Minister tell us how he is engaging with this strategy?

We are very much engaging with the strategy, and it is a strategy that I support. We are ensuring that we work across government to intervene as early as we can and that we have strong alternatives to custody that are not soft options but are effective. I draw the hon. Lady’s attention to the work that we are doing on community sentence treatment requirements as a way in which we can work across government to address some of these issues. For some people, prison is the right place, but for many of the petty offenders, there are more effective things we can do, and I welcome her support for the approach we are taking.

The Justice Committee report into transforming rehabilitation recommended a presumption against short sentences. Statistics show that the reoffending rate for women prisoners currently stands at 61% for those serving sentences of less than 12 months, yet, since 2010, community sentences for women have nearly halved. Will the Secretary of State therefore fully commit to the Committee’s recommendations and implement a presumption against sentences of less than 12 months?

We are looking at various options in this context. I know that Scotland introduced a presumption against three months. I think it is fair to say that that did not make much of a difference, and it has now been extended to 12 months, and we are looking at the evidence from that. I hope it is very clear to the House that, when it comes to reducing reoffending and to rehabilitation, we do question the effectiveness of short sentences.

Would not the effectiveness of all custodial sentences be increased if we reduced the number of prisoners who were released on a Friday night when no public services are available for them, often leaving them to fall into the hands of the local drug dealer and go straight back into a life of crime?

My hon. Friend is right to raise that concern. There are different ways in which one can address that matter. More support could be provided. For example, there could be release on a temporary licence a few days before the final release so that many of the public services can be accessed. Whether we look at release on a particular day or at other ways of addressing that matter, I completely understand his point. We need to make sure that when people are released, they are in a strong position to access accommodation and a job and to be able to maintain their family links; that is what we want to do.

The figures from the Ministry of Justice consistently show that the longer people spend in prison the less likely they are to reoffend. When the Secretary of State says that he wants to see the end of short-term sentences, does he agree with me that those people should be sent to prison for longer, or does he agree with the Opposition that those criminals should not be sent to prison at all?

I had a feeling that the consensus was not going to last much longer. The reality is that, for petty offenders who tend to be prolific and tend to be repeat offenders, the evidence shows that non-custodial sentences are more effective at reducing reoffending than custodial sentences and that is the approach that we want to take.

Would not reoffending rates for those on short-term prison sentences go down if life was made as uncomfortable as possible for them while they were in jail? Instead of spending all day in their overcrowded prison cell either on their mobile phone or going through the satellite TV channels, should they not be out breaking rocks in a quarry or picking up litter in the rain?

People are sent to prison as punishment, not for punishment. The purpose of prison should be about ensuring that when people are released, they are less likely to reoffend. I do not think that my hon. Friend is setting out an effective approach.

I support the idea that short custodial sentences often serve little purpose in reducing reoffending, but does the Secretary of State agree that to convince the public of this—to take them on this journey—they need to see both transparency of sentencing and that any discounts on tariffs are rewards, rather than the rule?

It is important that there are incentives—both carrots and sticks—in the prison system. Good behaviour in prison should be rewarded, just as bad behaviour should be punished. That is the approach that we need to take.

My party agrees with the Secretary of State regarding the evidence on the inappropriateness of many short-term prison sentences, but community sentences need to be properly resourced to ensure that they work as an appropriate alternative. Will the Government increase funding to local authorities for the delivery of effective community sentences alongside any presumption?

We need to make sure that the alternatives to custody are effective—that they are not soft options, but that they do enable people to turn their lives around—and that the public have confidence that this is the proper course of action to take. That is our ambition.

 

Violence in Prisons

7. What comparative assessment he has made of levels of violence in public and private prisons. [906992]

The influx of drugs has had an impact on violence levels in both public and private prisons, which is why we are investing in body scanners, improved searching techniques and phone blocking technology. In 2017, four of the top five assault rates in local prisons and category C prisons were in public prisons.

It remains the case that the prisons with the highest number of assaults are all private. In the first quarter of 2018, the top five most violent prisons were privately run. Will the Minister commit to an independent review of violence in private prisons and to a moratorium on any new private prisons in the meantime?

No, the reality is that there are issues with violence in both public and private sector prisons. Certainly, the numbers that I have suggest that there is a significant issue in public sector prisons such as Liverpool, Exeter and Bedford, where there have been urgent notifications. We should not take an ideological approach. There are very good private sector prisons, and there are some very good public sector prisons, and it is right that there is a diversity of prisons in our system.

Will my right hon. Friend pay tribute to the prison officers in both public and private prisons who, by and large, do an exceptional job in very, very difficult circumstances? Does he agree that we should on every occasion do what we can to encourage them and raise their status as an important part of the whole process of judicial sentencing?

My right hon. Friend is right to make that point, and I happily pay tribute to the work that prison officers do in this country—a point that I made in my party conference speech in Birmingham last week. The work that they do in protecting the public and rehabilitating prisoners should be valued by us all. It is not often very public, because it is, by definition, behind locked doors, but they do excellent work and we should recognise that.

There is a worrying level of violence, and increasing violence, in both state-run and privately run prisons. Does the Secretary of State agree with Phil Taylor, a former governor of Wormwood Scrubs, who said:

“What we’ve got here is a reduction in prison staff by over 10,000, and the government lauding the fact that they replaced it with three and a half thousand inexperienced staff who lack confidence and ability to deal with the things that they are confronted with on a daily basis”?​

It is the case that in the past two years we have increased the prison officer population, and we will continue to do so. That enables us to implement changes, as we have key workers—a point that I made a little earlier—and a relationship is built up between prison officers and prisoners. Alongside additional measures that we have taken to stop, for example, drugs getting in, and the announcement that we have made on PAVA, all of that is designed to assist prison officers in doing a very, very important job.

The prison officers in my constituency continue to be worried about the lack of a deterrent to prevent prisoners from assaulting them. Will the Minister reassure the House that far harsher sentences should be handed down to those who dare to assault our prison officers? [Interruption.]

Indeed, and as my hon. Friend knows there is a new law that does precisely that. We were very happy to support the private Member’s Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) on that front. We are increasing legislative ability, and we want to make sure that we work closely with the police to ensure that prosecutions are brought. It is the case, as I have mentioned, that we are giving prison officers a new tool, with access to PAVA.

The prisons Minister theatrically announced to the press this summer that he would resign if the 10 prisons he had identified did not improve under his watch. I have been looking at the prisons that he chose. It turns out that, of the 10 prisons he identified, only three are in the bottom category of the four prison performance categories. It gets still stranger when we see that there are 15 prisons in that worst performing category. I am sure that the Minister is sincere in his desire to improve prison standards, so instead of cherry-picking prisons for a media stunt, will he agree today that if all the 15 worst performing prisons identified by his own Ministry do not improve under his watch, he will quit?

The prisons Minister has set out a plan for 10 prisons that we are going to focus on. If the hon. Gentleman wants an explanation as to why we have chosen those specific 10 prisons, I am happy to meet him, and I know the prisons Minister would be happy to meet him. This is an area where we believe it is necessary to take action, and we have a plan to reduce violence in those prisons. If it works, we can look to extend it elsewhere. The fact is that we are gripping this issue. We are putting measures in place to address it, and we will deliver.

Hansard
 

Employment and Education: Reoffending Reduction

9. What assessment he has made of the role of employment and education in reducing rates of reoffending. [906995]

Prison education is key to achieving better outcomes for offenders and has been proven to reduce reoffending by approximately 9% and increase P45 employment by 1.8%. We are empowering governors, who will be given the budget and controls to tailor education provision in their prisons, to both better engage their prisoners and meet their specific learning and employment needs. On 17 September, we launched a new innovative commissioning portal, which will give governors direct access to a huge range of learning and skills providers, including local educators and employers.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. Does he agree that in some cases, self-employment—for example, as a sole trader—may be appropriate? Can he set out whether those new support measures will include mentoring for offenders who want to start a business when they leave prison?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. A lot of ex-offenders who go on to work currently do so in self-employment, and that will continue to be the case, so encouragement and support down that route has to be part of what we do to encourage employment.

The Secretary of State will know that most veterans make a successful transition from the armed forces into civilian life, but inevitably some will end up in the criminal justice system. Will he say what work is taking place to support veterans with employment and training, not only to reduce reoffending but, frankly, to ensure that they do not end up living on the streets?

The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. He will know that there is a strong voluntary sector that provides a huge amount of support. I pay tribute to the work that many of those charities do. We work closely with them because it is particularly important, for those who have served their country, that we do not them down subsequently.

Hansard

 

Topical Questions

T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. [907010]

Following a successful pilot, we have made the decision to equip every prison officer in the public sector adult male estate with PAVA spray. PAVA can help to prevent serious harm to staff and prisoners alike, as well as being a tool to persuade prisoners in the act of violence to stop. All officers will receive specialist training before being allowed to carry the spray, and it will be delivered only where key worker training has already been rolled out. Key working will allow officers to build more positive relationships with prisoners, support their rehabilitation and manage difficult behaviour.

I am grateful to the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. and learned Member for South East Cambridgeshire (Lucy Frazer) for meeting me and the family of Jerome Rogers before the summer recess. Jerome took his own life after aggressive bailiff threats and intimidation. Does the Secretary of State not find it astonishing that charities giving advice about debt, such as Citizens Advice, are regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority, yet bailiffs, with infinitely more power, are not? Will he confirm that this will form part of the consultation?

As my hon. and learned Friend mentioned a moment ago, we will conduct a call for evidence shortly. That will be an opportunity to look at all these issues. I express my condolences to the family of the hon. Lady’s constituent.

Hansard

 

The Prime Minister told her party conference that austerity is over, but if that were true, everyone in the justice sector would be breathing a huge sigh of relief. Tory cuts have unleashed an unprecedented crisis in our prisons and wider justice system. Justice faces the deepest cuts of any Department, totalling 40%, with £800 million in cuts between April 2018 and 2020 alone. Those cuts risk pushing justice from deep crisis into full-blown emergency, so will the Secretary of State confirm that that £800 million of cuts will not go ahead? If not, will he agree with me that the Prime Minister’s words were nothing more than yet another Tory con trick?

What I can confirm is that we are continuing to recruit more prison officers and to invest in court reform. As the hon. Gentleman mentions party conferences, I have to point out to him that as the shadow Lord Chancellor, when somebody suggested an illegal general strike, the hon. Gentleman—[Interruption.] Well, he denied that he joined in a standing ovation, but he did say that he stood up and clapped.

To bring things back down to earth, the people who clean and tidy the Secretary of State’s office—perhaps even when he is in it—have been demanding a real living wage of £10 an hour. Those Ministry of Justice cleaners are sick and tired of being treated like dirt, and his security guards, who keep the Ministry of Justice safe, are in the same boat. I wrote to the Secretary of State demanding that he sort this out, but he used outsourcing as his excuse for inaction. Instead of repeating his excuses to me today, will he address the Ministry of Justice staff watching us today and tell them why he thinks that they are not worth £10 an hour?

We are the Government who introduced the national living wage, which increased in April by 4.4%. We were able to do that because we are running a strong economy. That would not happen if the hon. Gentleman got his hands on this country.

Hansard

 

Given that, yet again, the recruitment round of High Court judges has fallen short, and given that many distinguished retired judges are kept busy as arbitrators and wish to continue working, is it not time to look again at the arbitrary judicial retirement age of 70 as being out of line with modern practice?

This is an issue that we continue to look at. I think it is a finely balanced matter, and we continue to look at the evidence. The argument is sometimes made that if we increase the retirement age, we will increase the age at which people apply to become judges. We will continue to look at the matter.

Hansard

I know that the Lord Chancellor takes the role of the rule of law in this country very seriously, but can he reassure me that the Government will always stand up for it, and would resist—and certainly would not stand up and clap—any suggestions that it should be broken?

I can certainly give that assurance, and I must say that it is extraordinary for the shadow Lord Chancellor to condone mass law-breaking.

Hansard

 

Given the very lucrative public contracts given to Atos and Capita, and the fact that they are clearly failing—71% of assessments for personal independence payments are overturned in the upper courts—what discussions has the Justice Secretary had with his counterpart in the Department for Work and Pensions about the imposition of a fining system? Atos and Capita are not only blocking up the courts, but treating disabled people appallingly.

I have regular conversations with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions about a range of matters, including this one. We continue to do everything we can to ensure that the system is working properly.

Hansard

 

Surgeries

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

2019

4th January, Rickmansworth
18th January, Tring
1st February, South Oxhey
15th February, Berkhamsted
1st March, Rickmansworth

Call 01923 771781 to make an appointment.

Record of surgeries

 

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