Justice Questions

5th February 2019

Justice Secretary David Gauke answers questions from MPs.

Oral Answers to Questions

Justice

The Secretary of State was asked—

Imprisonment

1. What the Government’s policy is on the use of imprisonment for offenders. [908987]

Sentencing must match the severity of the crime, but there is persuasive evidence that short sentences do not work in helping some offenders to turn their backs on crime, which is why we are exploring options that would see them used much less frequently.

A deeply concerning incident took place in my constituency at the weekend involving an assault using a noxious substance. May I ask the Secretary of State for a clear commitment not only that the sale and possession of acid will be targeted, but that he will ensure that those guilty of these despicable and evil crimes receive significant prison terms?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising a very serious incident. Such attacks are truly dreadful and have life-changing consequences, and anyone committing them must feel the full force of the law. That is why the Offensive Weapons Bill, which is currently being considered in the Lords, will change the law to stop the sale of acid to under-18s and to make it an offence to possess a corrosive substance in a public place. It is for the independent courts to determine sentences handed down in individual cases, but it is already the case that the use of a weapon, including acid, in any offence is treated as an aggravating factor meriting an increased sentence.

Statistics show that 36% of rough sleepers in London have previously been in prison—the figure is up three percentage points on the year before—which is deeply concerning. Short sentences do nothing but exacerbate the issue and do not reduce reoffending. Does the Secretary of State agree that it is now time to introduce a presumption against prison sentences of less than 12 months?

The hon. Lady makes a very important point. If someone is given a short sentence, it can mean that they lose their home, which would put them in a more difficult position, and then on their release they would be at much greater risk of rough sleeping. We are looking at our options, and I welcome her support. We are running pilots at Pentonville, Bristol and Leeds to see what we can do to address the problem of rough sleeping.

I very much welcome the Secretary of State’s much more realistic and nuanced approach to sentencing and the use of imprisonment. Does he agree that it is essential that we have space in our prisons for those whose crimes are so serious that only custody is appropriate, but that we do not overcrowd prisons with those who have mental or medical difficulties, or literacy or social problems, or those who might be better dealt with through rigorous community sentences?

I completely agree with the Chair of the Justice Committee. There are serious crimes for which a strong custodial sentence is exactly the right answer, but there are also cases for which short sentences, in particular, are ineffective for rehabilitation and do not serve society well. Prison should be used when appropriate, and we should look to develop alternatives to prison wherever possible.

I am heartened by the Secretary of State’s answers thus far. Last September the prisons Minister, the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), said that

“the evidence on what could be done to reduce reoffending by not overusing short prison sentences inappropriately is a good lesson from Scotland from which we wish to learn.”—[Official Report, 4 September 2018; Vol. 646, c. 41.]

At Holyrood, however, the Scottish Conservatives have long campaigned against the presumption against short sentences, claiming it to be a soft-touch approach. Does the Secretary of State agree that the Scottish Conservatives are out of touch in wanting to pursue an old-fashioned and entirely ineffective approach?

I will focus on the approach that I want to take in England and Wales. If we can find effective alternatives to short sentences, it is not a question of pursuing a soft-justice approach, but rather a case of pursuing smart justice that is effective at reducing reoffending and crime. That is the approach that I want to take in England and Wales.

But the full force of the law too often is not very forceful at all, is it?

In reality, sentences and the prison population have gone up in recent years. I maintain that there are circumstances in which significant prison sentences are right as a means of punishment and a demonstration of society’s abhorrence at particular behaviours, but we also have to bear it in mind that some people who go to prison end up in a cycle of reoffending, with little achieved to the benefit of society or those individuals.

 

Probation Service

2. If he will make it his policy to return the probation service to the public sector. [908988]

18. If he will make it his policy to return the probation service to the public sector. [909005]

With your permission, Mr Speaker, I will answer Questions 2 and 19 together.

Order. I think that the Secretary of State’s intended grouping of Question 2 is with Question 18, which was tabled by the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame Morris), who was looking mildly perturbed, but whom I hope will now be greatly reassured.

indicated assent.

It is good to see the hon. Gentleman reassured.

We have made it clear that the probation system needs to improve, and we have taken decisive action to end current community rehabilitation company contracts and to develop more robust arrangements to protect the public and tackle reoffending. We have seen examples of good and innovative work from CRCs in Cumbria, where probation is being adapted to a rural setting, and in London, where CRCs are working with the Mayor’s office on programmes to rehabilitate offenders involved in knife crime.

I believe that public, private and voluntary organisations all have a role to play. The reforms that we are making are crucial to integrating the system better so that different providers can work more effectively together, and we will set out our proposals later this year.

I am grateful for that comprehensive answer but, in the light of the prisons Minister’s praise at our last session of Justice questions for the not-for-profit Durham Tees Valley CRC—one of the best, if not the best, at inspection, and, according to Napo, also one of the best to work for—may I ask how the Secretary of State will protect this rare success story, given that his own reprivatisation plans are set to allow security giants such as Sodexo to swallow it up?

I, too, pay tribute to the work of that not-for-profit CRC and its focus on rehabilitating offenders. The expertise and commitment of not-for-profit organisations are vital in helping offenders to turn their lives around, and the changes on which we are working will ensure that the probation system benefits from having a diverse range of providers, while also doing more to deliver operational stability.

I thank the Secretary of State for his answer, and for drawing attention to the statistics that we have seen in Durham. However, probation failures cause reoffending and place strains on already overburdened police resources. Will the Secretary of State consider meeting police and crime commissioners such as Ron Hogg, Durham’s police, crime and victims commissioner, who happens to head the only outstanding police force in the country, to discuss the devolution of probation services so that they can be tailor-made to meet the needs of local communities?

I have already met a number of police and crime commissioners to talk about this very issue, but I should be happy to meet Mr Hogg, as well as other PCCs, to discuss these matters again. We want to ensure that PCCs can play a full and active role in this process, and I am heartened by the determination and willingness of many of them to do all that they can to help to develop it and to ensure that we have a strong probation system.

Hansard
 

Prisons: Violence

5. What steps the Government are taking to tackle violence in prisons. [908991]

The scourge of violence in prisons must be tackled. To do this, we need to get the basics right. We have strengthened the frontline with more than 4,300 new staff so that we can run full, purposeful regimes, and we have moved to a new key worker model to support prisoners. We are also supporting prisoners with measures to tackle drugs and to make the physical environment in prisons decent and safe.

We know that a positive working relationship between staff and prisoners is key to running safe, decent prisons. Will my right hon. Friend tell us more about what is being done to improve the relationship between staff and prisoners?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I pay tribute to the work that she does in this area. I know that she is a frequent visitor to Chelmsford prison in her capacity as its constituency MP. In fact, I understand that she might almost have her own cell there, such is the regularity of her visits. She highlights the important relationship between prison officers and prisoners. We are introducing the key workers programme across the prison estate, and the early signs are that it is making a positive difference in terms of relationships and of reducing violence. There is more work that we need to do, but I am pleased that we are able to do that and to ensure that prison officers get the training they need to make best use of it.

Out-of-control drug use in prisons fuels violence. Yesterday I met the hon. Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price), the Health Minister who is dealing with this issue. I want to know what more can be done both before a prisoner enters the prison system and afterwards, as well as how we can ensure that during that crucial period when he—it is usually a “he”—is in there, he can have proper drug rehab so that his time in prison is not wasted.

The hon. Lady makes an important point. We have formed a drugs taskforce and we are working with law enforcement and with health partners across Government to restrict supply, reduce demand and build recovery. The taskforce is developing a national drug strategy, which will provide all prisons with guidance and examples of best practice to support them in tackling drugs. I should also point out that we are investing £6 million in 10 of the most challenging prisons to tackle drug supply and reduce demand. There is a greater focus on drug detection, on dedicated search teams, on body scanners and on improved perimeter defences.

Purposeful activity for prisoners is vital to encouraging rehabilitation and reducing volatility in our jails. What steps are being taken to drive down the number of prisoners who are locked up for 23 hours a day, which does not help to bring about peace in our prisons?

I agree with my hon. Friend. The additional 4,300 prison officers will help to ensure that we can do this. A particular area on which I have been keen to focus is the education and employment strategy, which will ensure that we provide those prisoners who are prepared to take responsibility with the opportunity to educate themselves and prepare themselves for the world of work. I am very keen that we should continue to do that.

We found out from the Secretary of State’s Department last week the alarming fact that 51% of our youth offenders now come from a black minority or ethnic background. That puts us in a worse position than the United States. Given that context in our prisons, will he revisit my review, and may I meet him urgently to discuss how we can accelerate progress?

I am grateful for that question, and I would be happy to meet the right hon. Gentleman. I know he regularly meets the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar), on this subject. I am also concerned about the proportion of BAME children in custody, which is something we take very seriously. My Department has introduced a dedicated team within the youth justice policy unit with a key focus on explaining or changing disproportionate outcomes for BAME children in the justice system.

The Justice Secretary has been in post for just over a year. In that time, every set of prison safety figures has shown violence spiralling out of control. In January 2018, assaults were up 12% year on year, reaching new record highs. In April 2018, assaults were up 13%, reaching new record highs. In October 2018, assaults were up 20%, reaching new record highs. And last week we saw yet more record highs—a record high for assaults on staff, a record high for prisoner-on-prisoner violence and a record high for self-harm. Does he agree that his Government have lost control of violence in our prisons? When will they get a grip?

Clearly, the figures set out last week, which relate to what was happening in July, August and September 2018, are not acceptable and we need to bring those numbers down. That is why we have increased the number of prison officer staff, it is why we are focusing on purposeful activity and it is why we are taking steps to reduce both the supply and the demand for drugs. We are seeing some encouraging signs, but I do not want to make too much of that as yet. We need to wait to see the numbers in April, when we will have details about the last quarter of 2018. I am beginning to feel that we have turned the corner, that the additional staff are making a difference and that the measures we are taking are making a difference, but I fully accept that much work still needs to be done.

Hansard
 

Prison Officer Safety

6. What progress the Government have made on improving the safety of prison officers. [908992]

24. What progress the Government have made on improving the safety of prison officers. [909011]

We do not tolerate violence against our dedicated and hard-working prison officers. We are strengthening frontline officer numbers and rolling out the key worker scheme so that we can improve prisoner-staff relationships and tackle the causes of violence. We are giving officers the tools they need, like body-worn cameras and PAVA spray, to respond where incidents occur.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer but, in order to protect prison officers, what measures are the Government taking to ensure that the police and the justice system take crimes committed in prison as seriously as those committed outside in the community?

My hon. Friend makes a fair point, and it is important that crimes committed within prisons are taken seriously, just as crimes committed outside prisons are taken seriously. We have taken a number of steps, and I have already alluded to some of the measures we are taking to help prison officers in these circumstances. We also recently changed the law to strengthen sentences against those who commit crimes against prison officers.

A week before Christmas, one of my local prison officers, Ashley McLean, received horrendous facial injuries when he was violently attacked by a prisoner who was allegedly high on Spice. This was not an isolated incident. It happens every day of every week in one or other of our prisons. Much of that violent behaviour, as we have heard, is caused by drugs, so what steps are being taken to increase sentences for those found guilty of supplying drugs to inmates?

My hon. Friend rightly highlights an horrific incident, and I know the prisons Minister has already replied to a letter from him on this matter. We are fully committed to addressing the significant increase we have seen in the number of assaults on our hard-working prison staff. The new Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Act 2018 increases the penalty for those who assault emergency workers, including prison officers, and I understand that the police are continuing to investigate this particular incident.

We have already heard that assaults against prison officers are at record levels, and those levels are rising at a record rate. Why is the Secretary of State more interested in taking prison officers to court for raising health and safety concerns than in sitting around the table and working with them to develop an urgent violence reduction strategy?

We are very focused on reducing violence, which is why we are taking the measures that we are: introducing the extra staff; giving prison officers access to PAVA; increasing the use of body-worn cameras; and increasing measures to stop drugs getting into prisons—as we have heard, they can often be a driver of this violence. So that is precisely what we are doing and will continue to do.

I recently met someone who trained to be a prison officer and left the job after six months. He told me that the three months of training left him ill-equipped to deal with the violence and intimidation, and to deal with prisoners with mental health problems. The Secretary of State will know that this is not an isolated case—it is widespread. What is he doing to improve training for prison officers so that they are equipped to deal with these incidents and have support when they are encountering this type of violence?

I assure the hon. Gentleman that we are constantly looking at ways in which we can improve the training for prison officers. The prisons Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), has been very focused on that. We have managed to increase the number of prison officers significantly—as I say, the figure is up by 4,300. We are now seeing those prison officers gaining more experience and becoming increasingly effective. As I say, there are reasons to be cautiously optimistic that we are moving in the right direction, but there is still much more that needs to be done.

What specific assessment has the Secretary of State made of the opportunities associated with the use of body-worn cameras by prison officers, given the successes we have seen in policing?

Again, my hon. Friend is right to highlight this issue. The increased use of body-worn cameras can help to ensure that we have evidence that can ensure that wrongdoing by prisoners can be brought to book—it can enable prosecutions to be brought. It also provides an ability to ensure that the truth can always be discovered, which is important. Body-worn cameras are not the sole answer, but they are part of an answer on how to bring the number of these incidents down. The nearly 6,000 additional body-worn cameras, alongside staff training, can help us to move in the right direction.

Every assault on a prison officer is, of course, one too many. In the last full year, there were five times fewer serious assaults on prison officers in Scotland than there were in English and Welsh prisons. Given that stark contrast, and the fact that while this Government were slashing prison officer numbers by nearly a third their numbers in Scotland actually rose, will the Secretary of State meet the Scottish Government to discuss what he could learn from Scotland’s approach to this issue as well?

We have a co-operative relationship with the Scottish Government and that will continue. Let me point out that since October 2016 we have seen an increase in prison officer numbers of 4,300, which is to be welcomed. At one stage, people said, “Those are new numbers but they are very inexperienced”, but of course as each month goes by those prison officers are gaining experience and confidence. I believe we will see improvements in the months and years ahead.

Hansard
 

Prison Overcrowding

14. What steps he is taking to reduce prison overcrowding. [909001]

16. What steps he is taking to reduce prison overcrowding. [909003]

We are making good progress with Wellingborough and Glen Parva Prisons, which will be modern and provide uncrowded capacity and will open in 2021 and 2022 respectively. This is against a background where the long-term population trend has put a stress on the prison estate. I am pleased that the prison population has decreased by around 2,000 in the past year. We will continue to look into how we can ensure further reductions, including looking at better community sentences. Our new prison estate will have up to 10,000 new uncrowded prison places, creating the physical conditions for governors to achieve better educational, training and rehabilitation outcomes.

Nearly two weeks ago, I raised concerns about broken screens at HMP Bedford that have resulted in my constituents having to put up with loud, intimidating and lewd behaviour from prisoners, and daily intrusions on to their properties by criminals smuggling contraband through their gardens and over the prison wall. The Minister committed to immediately raising the matter with the governor. Will he confirm what action has been taken?

The Prisons Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), has indeed visited Bedford Prison and is in contact with the governor. The prison is introducing new scanners to help to address some of these issues. We will look at anything that we can do to ensure that no burden is placed on the local community.

Overcrowding in our prisons leads to inhumane conditions and puts pressure on provision, services and training. That is unacceptable. The public expect reform and rehabilitation. What is the Minister doing to address this issue, as well as the over-representation of black men within our prisons?

I agree with the hon. Lady about the importance of rehabilitation. We have stressed that point, and it has been stressed a number of times this morning. Of course we want to bring overcrowding levels down. It would be fair to say that overcrowding levels have been pretty consistent; they are essentially at the same level as in 2010. On the disproportionate numbers of people from ethnic minorities within the prison system, we take that seriously, as the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar), has just pointed out. I look forward to meeting the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) to discuss this shortly.

One source of overcrowding is the indefinite detention of prisoners using the imprisonment for public protection—IPP—sentences, which were introduced under the previous Labour Government but ruled unlawful in 2007. Why are 3,300 prisoners still in prison having served their sentence? Many of them—51%—have served five years or more after their sentence and are still in prison to this day.

Over time, more of those IPP prisoners are being released, but the Parole Board has to make a judgment in each individual case on whether there is a risk to society from releasing a particular individual. Those judgments can be difficult. Sometimes the Parole Board faces criticism when it does decide to release somebody in these circumstances. These matters have to be addressed on a case-by-case basis.

Last year, almost half of prisoners held at HMP Birmingham were held in overcrowded cells, contributing to the crisis of violence that six months ago forced the Government to step in and take control away from G4S. On the last occasion I asked about this, the Minister of State was unable to give a response, so will the Secretary of State now confirm that he will not be handing HMP Birmingham back to G4S, and will he draw the obvious conclusion that privatisation has been a failure in our prison system?

We will not hand HMP Birmingham back if it is not safe for us to do so. I am afraid that the attack on any involvement of the private sector in the prison system that we hear from Labour Front Benchers does not represent a balanced approach. We have to look at the successes that exist within the prison system, where the private sector has run very effective prisons. That cannot be ignored, notwithstanding the very real problems that exist, and have existed, with Birmingham.

Hansard
 

Topical Questions

T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. [909012]

Yesterday, I published my review of the Parole Board rules and the Government’s response to the public consultation about creating a new reconsideration mechanism for Parole Board decisions. I have decided to proceed with changes to the Parole Board rules that will introduce such a mechanism later this year. Our report also sets out additional reforms that will bring greater transparency and improvements for victims. I announced the launch of a tailored review of the Parole Board that will consider whether more fundamental reforms are necessary in the longer term, including those that may require primary legislation.

New technology can play a key role in reducing the flow of contraband into our prisons. Will my right hon. Friend outline what support and financial investment his Department is providing in that area?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. We are strengthening the countermeasures against contraband for every route into prison, and technology is an important part of that. In 2017, we invested £2 million in modern technology, including hand-held and portable mobile phone detection devices. In 2018, we invested a further £7 million to enhance security in prisons through scanners, improved searching techniques and phone-blocking technology. In the work that my hon. Friend the Prisons Minister has done with 10 of our most challenging prisons, he is emphasising the use of technology to search letters, bags and people, and he announced last week that those prisons all now have scanners that can detect drugs on clothes and mail.

There is deep concern that the Government want to use the cover of Brexit to roll back citizens’ rights. Such fears have been further fuelled by the recent failure of Ministers in a letter to the House of Lords EU Justice Sub-Committee to rule out repealing the Human Rights Act 1998 post Brexit. Labour introduced the Human Rights Act. We will fight any attempt by the Tories to undermine it or dilute our hard-won rights. Will the Secretary of State give a reassurance today that the Government will not repeal or reform the Human Rights Act in the aftermath of our departure from the European Union?

We certainly have no plans to do so, but on the subject of human rights, I am a little surprised that we are getting lectured by the hon. Gentleman, who will not condemn the Venezuelan regime.

Hansard
 

T3. Does the Secretary of State agree that it is unconscionable that the workers who clean his offices and the security guards who keep the Ministry of Justice safe are not paid the living wage? Will he commit today to finally paying them a wage they can decently live on, with terms and conditions that mean they can take a family holiday? [909014]

As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, the cleaners and security guards are employed by private contractors, and that is a matter for them.

Hansard
 

T6. People were shocked to read that over half the knife crime in London is associated with teenagers or children. Can my right hon. Friend reassure the House that he is working with the Home Office to ensure that the new knife crime protection orders will effectively target children who are carrying knives and not end up putting into custody children who are at risk but have never carried a knife? [909017]

My hon. Friend raises an important point. We are working with the Home Office to ensure that these orders are truly preventive in nature and put children on the right path away from a life of crime. These orders will give the police the opportunity to intervene earlier, and the court can include in the order a range of conditions that can be both prohibitive and proactive. They will be used only if the court is satisfied on the balance of probability that the child has carried a knife, or if they have been convicted of a relevant criminal offence and the order is necessary to protect the public or prevent crime. Sentencing is, of course, for the judge, but we are consulting on these proposals.

Hansard
 

T8. The Minister of State said earlier that the best help for rehabilitation is to have a job. Do we not urgently need to reform the Disclosure and Barring Service system, so we still protect the public from dangerous criminals and dangerous people, but stop blighting the lives of hundreds of thousands of citizens who are trying to turn their lives around? [909019]

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that question. There has obviously been a recent case on this. We need to look very carefully at this to ensure we get the balance right between protecting the public and ensuring that those who have committed a crime in the past are given a second chance and have the ability to turn their lives around. I am keen to look further at this in the light of the recent judgment.

I call Bob Neill—one sentence.

Does the Secretary of State agree that it is vital to ensure continuity of contractual obligations and enforceability of judgments once we leave the EU, which would be prevented by a no-deal outcome?

Yes.

Hansard
 

Thank you, Mr Speaker, especially for allowing me to exercise my knees more than usual today.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that the offer and acceptance of payments to and by an MP for the benefit of their constituents by a Minister of the Crown in an attempt to influence votes in this House could represent breaches of sections 1 and 2 of the Bribery Act 2010?

I am loth to provide legal advice, but the right hon. Gentleman has clearly raised a significant point. I would like to hear more of what he is saying and I am happy to discuss this with him. He is clearly alluding to something, but I am afraid that I am not quite aware what it is.

Hansard

 

Surgeries

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

2019

1st March, Rickmansworth
15th March, Tring
29th March, South Oxhey
12th April, Berkhamsted
26th April, Rickmansworth
10th May, Tring
24th May, South Oxhey

 

Call 01923 771781 to make an appointment.

Record of surgeries

 

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