Justice Questions

23rd April 2019

David Gauke answers MPs’ questions on the work of the Ministry of Justice.

 

Imprisonment for Public Protection

2. What steps he is taking to reduce the number of prisoners serving sentences of imprisonment for public protection. [910419]

The Government are committed to providing IPP prisoners with opportunities to progress to the point at which they are safe to release. Our primary responsibility is public protection. Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation service and the Parole Board are delivering a joint action plan to improve IPP prisoners’ sentence progression. In 2017-18, three quarters of those considered by the Parole Board were either recommended for release or a move to open conditions. This shows that our approach is working.

My constituent Wayne Bell is currently in the 12th year of a sentence for which the original tariff was four years. Owing to his significant mental health issues, he is unable to engage with the parole process and the review process, and his mental health problems are exacerbated by the hopelessness of his situation. Does the Secretary of State realise that prisoners with mental health issues can get trapped in a vicious cycle where it becomes almost impossible to achieve parole, and will he look at interventions that could be considered to enable Wayne’s cases and others like it to be resolved?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising this point. I am happy to write to him on the individual case, which has a number of complexities, as I am sure he is aware. I have mentioned the joint action plan to improve IPP prisoners’ sentence progression. These measures include case reviews led by psychologists for those prisoners not making the expected progress, an increased number of places on specialist progression regimes, and greatly improved access to rehabilitative programmes. I continue to be ambitious to ensure that we do everything we can in this area, remembering that public protection must remain our priority.

I thank the Secretary of State for what he has said about his ambitions for IPP prisoners. Does the joint action plan have an end date—that is, is there a date beyond which we should not detain people under these sorts of sentences?

In the end, it comes down to the decisions made by the Parole Board, which has to make its decisions based on public protection. In some cases— regrettable though it may be—if someone is not safe to be released, the Parole Board must make that decision. We need to ensure that we do everything we can to progress these cases as best we can. As I have said, we have made progress in recent years.

The latest figures show that there are still nearly 2,500 prisoners serving IPP sentences. These sentences often have punitive recall conditions, which means that people might be returned to prison for fairly minor breaches of their licence conditions, resulting in many prisoners serving well beyond their original tariffs. It was previously a target of the Parole Board to reduce IPP prisoner numbers to 15,000 by 2020, so what steps will the Secretary of State take to ensure that this happens?

Obviously I want to reduce the numbers, and one of the reasons that we have provided additional support to the Parole Board is to enable it to do so. In the end, it comes down to individual decisions in respect of particular individuals, and some cases present a number of challenging factors. Decisions have to strike the right balance between progressing people as we should and ensuring that we protect the public.

Hansard
 

 

Leaving the EU: Legal System

9. What steps the Government plan to take to ensure that the UK legal system operates effectively after the UK leaves the EU. [910426]

The UK and the EU have agreed the terms of an implementation period. If Parliament is able to support a deal, common rules will remain in place during that period. That will provide certainty to businesses and citizens. The UK and EU have also committed to explore a new agreement on family judicial co-operation and other related matters; ambitious arrangements for services and investment, including legal services; and a future security partnership. My Department continues to work to ensure we are in the best position to negotiate our priorities.

The former Brexit Minister, the hon. Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris) said at the Dispatch Box that a no-deal Brexit

“would not result in a reduction in mutual capability”—[Official Report, 20 March 2019; Vol. 656, c. 1077]

on security and law enforcement co-operation.

However, the Solicitor General, when giving evidence to the Justice Committee, said:

“A no deal is deeply suboptimal when it comes to criminal justice”

and that

“we would lose the European arrest warrant”,

which

“raises all sorts of questions of delay and, frankly, potential denial of justice”.

Will the Justice Secretary tell me which Minister’s version of the post-Brexit future is accurate?

We are very clear that the best way forward is to reach a deal. That is what the Government are endeavouring to achieve and support from across the House would be quite helpful in delivering that.

The Solicitor General’s evidence to the Justice Committee was indeed crystal clear. Does my right hon. Friend also agree that it is critical for civil justice co-operation that there should be a deal? None of the ambitious objectives for future collaboration would work if there is no deal. For example, mutual recognition and enforceability of judgments in civil and family law cases would fall away immediately in the event of no deal.

My hon. Friend is right to highlight these issues. We have made progress in our negotiations, particularly in the context of family law. It is to the advantage of citizens in the UK and the EU that a deal is reached, which will enable us to enforce judgments in this area. Our ambitions are to go further and, in terms of the future framework, to make further progress on civil judicial co-operation.

In thousands of instances, we are not able to deliver justice in this country unless we have a proper extradition agreement with other countries in the European Union. As I understand it, even if the withdrawal agreement were to go forward at some point, we will still have to operate as a third party outside the European arrest warrant. Relying on the 1957 treaties will not be enough, so what plans does the Secretary of State have to ensure we are able to maintain a proper extradition arrangement with other countries in the European Union?

The hon. Member is correct to say that on leaving the European Union we will not have access to the European arrest warrant. We would wish to be able to do so, but there are difficulties. For example, Germany has a constitutional bar in this area. The Home Office continues to work with EU member states to try to find a way in which we can have as effective extradition and arrest warrant arrangements as possible.

Justice issues are, of course, largely devolved. EU initiatives such as Eurojust and the European arrest warrant are well utilised by Scottish prosecutors and are hugely valued by them. In the current Brexit talks between the UK Government and the Labour party, will the Secretary of State confirm what proposals regarding justice have been discussed and if the Scottish Government have been or will be consulted on these or any forthcoming proposals that may result from the talks between the Tories and the Labour party?

I am not going to comment specifically on those discussions. What I would say in the context of no-deal preparations is that, as I understand it, the Scottish Government have not allocated any of the money given to them for no-deal preparation on justice matters. Certainly, when it comes to the United Kingdom, we are doing everything we can to prepare for every eventuality.

I can assure the Secretary of State that the Scottish Government’s no-deal planning is well advanced. The Justice Secretary’s Government recently opted into the Eurojust regulation. Eurojust plays a vital role in the fight against serious organised crime, particularly terrorism but also cyber-crime and child pornography. His Department said that opting in was necessary to ensure that the UK continues to work in line with our European partners in the lead-up to exit day and during the transition period. Will he tell us how many more justice opt-ins has he planned before Brexit takes place and will they feature in the Tory manifesto for the EU Parliament elections?

What I say to the hon. and learned Lady is that we want to work in a pragmatic way with the European Union, so that as we leave the EU, we continue to co-operate wherever we can to our mutual benefit. That does require us to reach a deal.

Hansard
 

 

Topical Questions

T1.   If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. [910433]

On 12 April, the Voyeurism (Offences) Act 2019 came into effect. It criminalises the reprehensible behaviour known as upskirting. The offences specified in the Act are framed in clear and focused terms to ensure that that disturbing practice is tackled robustly wherever it occurs, so that victims can be confident that their complaints will be taken seriously. I thank Gina Martin for leading the campaign, and I thank all Members on both sides of the House who supported this law. Together, we have sent a clear message to those who think that they can get away with such invasive and unacceptable behaviour: it will not be tolerated.

A staggering 72% of decisions on personal independence payments and 65% of decisions on employment and support allowance are overturned in the first-tier tribunal. That means that not only are ill and disabled people having to fight for the social security support to which they are entitled, but a great deal of money is being wasted on the administration of appeal tribunals. May I ask the Secretary of State how much is being spent on the administration of PIP and ESA tribunals? If those figures are not recorded, will he agree to start producing them?

If I remember correctly, only 8% of awards are challenged in tribunals. As for the total cost, I will happily write to the hon. Lady providing the details.

Hansard
 

Climate change is now receiving the public attention that it merits. Greta Thunberg is in the House today, and my party pays tribute to her work. All too often, however, our justice system restricts the ability of citizens to take legal action against environmentally damaging decisions. Last month, the United Nations criticised the Government’s failure to meet their international obligations relating to access to justice in environmental matters.

Labour’s 2017 manifesto proposed the establishment of a new type of environmental tribunal with simplified procedures so that citizens would have alternatives to prohibitively expensive judicial reviews. Will the Government follow Labour’s lead, and commit themselves to the establishment of a tribunal that would empower people to use our legal system to protect our shared environment?

I am not sure that setting up a new tribunal is necessarily the right response to this particular issue, but of course we want to do everything we can to ensure that the law—including the Government’s ambitious climate change policies—is properly enforced.

Hansard

 

Given that the Prisons (Interference with Wireless Telegraphy) Act 2018 became law last year to block mobile phone signals in prisons, could the Minister update us on the progress that has been made on introducing the technology across the prisons estate?

I thank my hon. Friend for the work she did in bringing the Bill through and turning it into an Act. It is an important piece of legislation, which extends our powers to work alongside network providers. We are taking significant steps in dealing with the security threat posed by mobile phones. We have to prevent them from getting into prisons. We have to use detection methods to find them and stop them working, and we are making advances on that. We also need to exploit the data that is held on them.

Hansard
 

I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I welcome the fact that a family impact test on the Government’s proposed divorce law changes has been published, but what is the justification for the Government cherry-picking not just public opinion, which, according to the responses to their own consultation, is 80% against the proposed changes, but the evidence they rely on, with Ministers seeming to ignore evidence that there will be an immediate spike in divorce rates, which will impact negatively on the families involved?

I have to disagree with my hon. Friend on this point. It is true that there was a surge of submissions to our consultation in the last couple of weeks, but the fact is that a YouGov poll on the day the proposals were set out suggested 73% support for them. Indeed, we have had support from the Law Society, Resolution, the Family Law Bar Association, Sir Paul Coleridge—the chair of the Marriage Foundation—Relate and National Family Mediation. This reform will help families and ensure that the divorce process is less acrimonious.

Hansard
 

T3. Do the Government have any plans to change the legal system to protect against gender targeting of advertising towards children and teenagers? [910435]

We will certainly look at any proposals on this front. We do not, at the moment, have any plans, but I will certainly look at any proposals the hon. Lady might have.

Hansard
 

I warmly welcome the commitment by the UK Government to recruit 2,500 more prison officers, because prison officers in Scotland have spoken out about the fact that the system there is at breaking point. Rising numbers have led to overcrowding in my local prison, HMP Perth, which was recently reported to rely heavily on inexperienced agency and bank nurses due to staffing shortages. Does the Minister agree that the Scottish Government need to make a similar commitment to restore order in our prison service?

My hon. Friend is a doughty defender of the interests of her constituents. As she points out, this is a matter for the Scottish Government, but I am more than happy to share our experience with the Scottish Government if that would be helpful.

Hansard

 

Having pissed off half our supporters by botching Brexit, why are we now irritating the other half with an extreme liberal social agenda? Every single study, including the Harvard Law reform and the Margaret Brinig studies, shows that it is poor, vulnerable and dispossessed children who suffer most from divorce. Will my right hon. Friend at least accept that if he makes something easier, it will happen more often?

The evidence on no-fault divorce is that in a steady state there is not a higher rate of divorce than otherwise. It is also the case that the current fault-based approach to divorce results in divorces that are going to happen anyway being more acrimonious than they would otherwise have been. That is why I believe that it is right that we make this reform.

 

T7. The Health Minister will soon be meeting the parents in Hull affected by the baby ashes scandal, including mothers who do not know how their babies’ bodies were transported from hospital with no coffin, no funeral director and no funeral service for the family. Does this not yet again show the need for the local independent inquiry that is still being sought by those parents, and was it not unwise for the Ministry of Justice to accept the assurances of Hull City Council that the parents’ concerns had all been dealt with, without asking the parents? [910440]

The hon. Lady raises an important and sensitive point, and I would be happy to meet her to discuss the issue.

Hansard

 

The law regarding the sentencing of offenders has grown piecemeal and become ever more complex, even for experienced judges and practitioners. Bearing that in mind and noting that comparatively uncontroversial legislation is being sought for a future Queen’s Speech, would not paving legislation for the Law Commission’s sentencing code consolidation Bill absolutely fit the bill?

The Chair of the Justice Committee makes a good point. There is cross-party support on the matter, and I hope that we can make progress in the not-too-distant future.

Hansard

 

Surgeries

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

2019

24th May, South Oxhey
14th June, Berkhamsted
28th June, Rickmansworth
12th July, Tring

Call 01923 771781 to make an appointment.

Record of surgeries

 

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