Justice Questions

12th March 2019

David Gauke answers questions to the Ministry of Justice.

Probation Services

2. If he will make it his policy to return probation services to the public sector. [909711]

We have been clear that probation needs to improve, and we have taken decisive action to end current community rehabilitation company contracts and develop more robust arrangements to protect the public and tackle reoffending. I am determined to learn lessons from the first generation of contracts in developing future arrangements. I believe that public, private and voluntary providers all have a role to play. We want to improve integration under new arrangements so that providers are able to work together effectively to protect the public and tackle reoffending.

The recently published National Audit Office report on probation services highlighted not only the staggering additional costs of privatisation but the fact that CRCs are failing to provide even the most basic rehabilitation services. With nearly £0.5 billion-worth of bail-outs and only six out of 21 CRCs achieving significant reductions in reoffending, is it not now time to put probation back where it belongs, under public ownership and control?

The hon. Lady talks about costs and bail-outs. We have to remember that we are spending considerably less on CRCs than was anticipated when the contracts were entered into—some £700 million less—but it is right that we learn the lessons from the first generation of contracts. I am not satisfied with where we are, and the NAO has raised its concerns. We have also heard concerns from the inspectorate of probation, and we need to learn the lessons. It is important that this continues to be a mixed market. There is a place for the private sector and the voluntary sector, as well as for the public sector, in probation.

As the Secretary of State knows, the Select Committee on Justice has looked into this area in some depth. Would he agree that the most important issue is not the ownership of the contracts or who provides this service but ensuring that there is no fragmentation of the service, which is a risk? There should be a proper join-up between leaving prison and going out into the world of freedom.

These are important points, and the debate can sometimes be a little simplistic, whether it is “public sector good, private sector bad” or vice versa. A lot of this is about integration and making services hang together. One of the things we did last year was to announce additional money for through-the-gate services, which is important, but a lesson from what has happened in the past is that we need to make sure the system hangs together more, which it has not been doing sufficiently.

Before wreaking havoc in the Department for Transport, the Secretary of State for Transport was busy wreaking havoc in our justice system. He unleashed a crisis in our prisons and then he privatised probation, leaving the public less safe and costing the public hundreds of millions more than necessary. The world’s media are treating the Transport Secretary as a laughing stock, but the joke is on us because this Government are set to repeat past errors by signing a new round of private probation contracts. When will the Justice Secretary do the decent thing and put an end to the failed experiment of a privatised probation system?

The hon. Gentleman takes a somewhat simplistic view. His approach appears to be that he wants all probation services to be nationalised and every offender intervention to be done by the public sector. I think there is an opportunity to make use of both the private sector and the voluntary sector. If he takes the approach he appears to advocate of closing off any activity performed by anybody other than the public sector, we will not get the best probation service we could have.


Leaving the EU: Departmental Priorities

9. What recent assessment he has made of the implications for his departmental priorities of the UK leaving the EU. [909718]

24. What recent assessment he has made of the implications for his departmental priorities of the UK leaving the EU. [909734]

My Department continues to ensure that the necessary preparations are in place to mitigate potential impacts associated with leaving the EU wherever possible. For all scenarios, these preparations remain on track. In a no-deal scenario, we do not expect any immediate impacts on our departmental priorities, although there are risks in terms of pressures on the courts. We will react to longer-term impacts that are harder to predict, such as financial impacts, should they arise.

In recent years, 15 German nationals have been extradited from Germany to the United Kingdom, including for some very serious offences, but last month that country made it clear that it will no longer extradite its citizens to the UK after Brexit. What other countries does the Secretary of State anticipate will take a similar approach, and what, if anything, can he do to respond to this massive Brexit headache?

In terms of the European arrest warrant, we have to accept that as a consequence of Brexit the current arrangements will no longer be available, but we will continue to work very closely with EU member states to ensure that we can address this matter as effectively as we can.

Last week, I met the area commander in Glasgow East, and it was clear that the police are having to focus on Brexit preparations, yet that is not what people in my constituency actually want them to be focusing on—they want them to be focused on catching criminals in the street. If we do not have access to the European arrest warrant, it will not matter that all these contingency plans are in place. The only people who are going to benefit from that are those who seek to evade justice.

As I say, largely because of the constitutional issues with Germany, there are issues with the European arrest warrant; I absolutely accept that. We will take every measure that we can to ensure that authorities can co-operate. With regard to security issues, leaving the European Union with a deal is much better than leaving without a deal, and therefore the House should support the deal this evening.

The Tories’ disastrous handling of Brexit poses a serious threat to our economy and to our rights, and a real threat to our justice and security too. Any loss of access to the European arrest warrant or to European criminal records databases would damage our justice system, yet we have nothing but warm words from the Government on future justice co-operation. I was recently in Brussels discussing this with European partners, and it is obvious that the Government have failed to give this matter the priority it so urgently deserves. So what guarantees can the Secretary of State give today that his Government’s approach to Brexit will not leave our citizens less safe and will not let criminals off the hook?

If the hon. Gentleman cares about criminal justice co-operation, as I am sure he does—I certainly do—then there is a course of action available to him later today to ensure that we can have further criminal justice co-operation, and that is voting for the Government’s deal.


Probation Reforms

12. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of probation reforms since 2015. [909721]

Transforming Rehabilitation opened up probation to a diverse range of providers and extended support and supervision to an additional 40,000 offenders leaving prison. The National Probation Service is performing well in supervising higher-risk offenders, but we have been clear that the performance of community rehabilitation companies needs to improve. That is why we have taken action to end contracts early and conducted a public consultation on proposals to better integrate probation services. We are reflecting on the feedback received and lessons learned from current contracts as we develop future arrangements, and we will announce our plans in detail later this year.

My constituent Nicholas Churton was murdered by an offender who was on licence. Following his release from prison, an assessment was not carried out by the CRC, and the murderer committed two further offences before he went on to kill Mr Churton. All this information is in the public domain because I have put it there. I want there to be an independent inquiry into this case, to inform Justice Ministers, all of whom I respect, to ensure that the probation service is functioning and to prevent people from suffering in the way that my constituent’s family have because of the appalling current system.

The hon. Gentleman raises a very important matter. I would like to express my sympathies to his constituent’s family for what they have undergone. I know that the hon. Gentleman has met my hon. Friend the prisons Minister to discuss this, and they may meet again. These tragic cases are rare, but that does not in any way undermine how tragic they are. Because there is a greater workload, with a greater number of people dealt with by CRCs than before, we have seen some increase in the numbers, but the rate falls below 0.5%.

Last week, the prisons Minister offered to meet the family of Sam Cook, who was murdered by a convicted offender who was released on licence, in a similar case to the one we have just heard about from my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian C. Lucas). They would very much like to meet the Minister. Can the Secretary of State ask his officials to arrange that meeting as soon as possible? They want to speak to the Minister to make sure that no one has to experience what Sam Cook experienced and that the probation service is doing its job to protect the public from offenders who are released on licence and is supervising them properly.

I know that the prisons Minister would be very willing to have that meeting, but I make the point to both hon. Gentlemen that we want to get this right, we do recognise that we need to reform the probation system and that that is exactly what we intend to do.


Rehabilitation in Prisons: New Technology

18. What steps the Government are taking to introduce new technology to support rehabilitation in prisons. [909727]

Technology can play an important role in supporting rehabilitation. The careful use of basic computers and telephones enables us to do that. New digital services are being built for prison officers as part of the offender management in custody programme.

Good mental health and wellbeing are key to rehabilitation in prisons. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to use the best technology in this regard?

My hon. Friend raises a very important point. There is huge potential in this area, but we are already taking steps through telehealth and virtual consultations. We have in-cell telephony, which can be used in these circumstances. Digital hub services also exist, and the prison virtual learning environment includes a health application, so we have a virtual campus that can help people to address addiction issues. I think that there is much more potential in this area in the future.


Imprisonment of Offenders

19. What the Government’s policy is on the use of imprisonment for offenders. [909728]

20. What the Government’s policy is on the use of imprisonment for offenders. [909730]

23. What the Government’s policy is on the use of imprisonment for offenders. [909733]

Under this Government, the most serious offenders are more likely to go to prison and for longer, helping to protect the public and keep communities safe. Prison will be the right place for some offenders, but equally there is evidence that it does not work in rehabilitating others. I want to move the debate on from the old false choice between soft justice versus hard justice, and instead ensure we are focused on delivering smart justice. We need to think more imaginatively about different and more modern forms of punishment in the community.

I support the broad thrust of ensuring that sentences work, particularly for female offenders. Does the Secretary of State agree that at the same time we should look at early release and whether it could be recalibrated to improve prison discipline?

Incentives in the prison system are important to achieving good behaviour. Early release does help offenders to successfully make the transition from custody to living crime-free lives in the community. An additional early release scheme for certain offenders, home detention curfew, further helps to manage that transition and reduce future offending.

Question 20, Mr Speaker.

The hon. Gentleman’s question has been grouped. His opportunity is here. His moment is now. Let us hear the sonorous tones of the hon. Gentleman.

I am very grateful, Mr Speaker.

I understand the UK Government are looking at the effectiveness of short-term custodial sentences to reduce reoffending. I invite Ministers to look at the experience in Scotland, where short-term sentences have already been abolished yet reoffending rates remain stubbornly high. I therefore urge Ministers to look more closely at whether rehabilitation programmes in prison are working effectively, even those for prisoners on short-term sentences.

In conjunction with reforming short sentences, it is important that we have confidence in the delivery of community orders. We have been clear that in England and Wales probation services need to improve—we have already discussed that—but the two have to run together: reform of short sentences and adequate community alternatives.

What are the Government doing to ensure tougher sentences for those who are found guilty of violent crimes?

Under this Government, over the past nine years, sentences for violent crime have gone up. For knife crime in particular, the chances of a custodial sentence have increased and the length of the custodial sentence has increased.


Topical Questions

T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. [909735]

Yesterday, the Government were pleased to give their support and time to the Children Act 1989 (Amendment) (Female Genital Mutilation) Bill, sponsored in this House by my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith). The Bill, which seeks to make a small yet important change to the Children Act 1989, offers both a sensible simplification of the court process and a useful extension to the family courts’ powers to protect girls at risk of female genital mutilation. It will add to the measures that the Government have brought forward to tackle FGM issues.

We are very short of time. One-sentence questions will suffice.

Can my right hon. Friend provide an update on the Government’s consideration of giving children the right to have access to their grandparents in the event of family breakdown or divorce?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s activities in this area. I am reviewing the options for strengthening the involvement of grandparents in children’s lives to be explored in a future consultation. I will make an announcement on the Government’s plans in due course.

Too many young lives are being lost to violent crime on our streets. Whatever the Prime Minister may say, substantial reductions in police numbers leave our communities less safe—so does shutting hundreds of youth centres and so, too, does the Ministry of Justice’s halving of funds for youth offending teams since 2010. Tens of millions of pounds that once went to protecting children in their communities have needlessly been taken away, so when will the Government stop trying to do justice on the cheap and instead properly fund youth offending teams?

I do not accept the hon. Gentleman’s criticism. This Government have announced a £200 million youth endowment fund. We are taking measures to deal with the sources of problems with this, and we will continue to do that.


T9. Given the Minister’s opposition to short prison sentences, it must follow that he is equally opposed to fixed-term recalls of 28 days when criminals reoffend when out of prison on licence or when they break their licence conditions. Will he therefore pledge to scrap these fixed-term recalls and ensure that any such offenders are returned to prison for the remainder of their original prison sentence, as was the case in the past? [909743]

Where an offender is assessed as presenting a risk of serious harm, they will receive a standard recall and may only be released into the community if they can be safely managed there. If there is not that risk, a proportionate response is sensible. Her Majesty’s inspectorate of probation has found that probation services, in the vast majority of cases, are making the right decisions.


T7. Youth justice funding has fallen from £145 million to £71 million in the past 10 years. Yesterday, the Local Government Association said, “No more.” Is it right? [909741]

My Department will continue to argue the case for spending our money sensibly and getting the best deal for justice.




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