It is not for the Secretary of State to appoint his ministerial team, but I am delighted to welcome some strong new team members. They replace two outstanding Ministers who have gone on to higher and, I hope, greater things.
A recent survey found that many divorced or separated fathers are being prevented from staying in touch with their children despite indirect contact orders from the courts. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that fathers can have regular and meaningful contact with their children in such cases?
I am grateful for that question, and I am genuinely sympathetic towards those in such situations. Family breakdown always takes a toll on those involved, whether parents or children, but the child’s welfare is paramount in court decisions about their upbringing. The law remains gender-neutral and presumes that a parent’s involvement in a child’s life is beneficial unless there is evidence to the contrary.
I recently met Donna Mooney, the sister of Tommy Nicol, who sadly took his own life in prison while serving an imprisonment for public protection sentence. I am sure that the Secretary of State will also want to meet her soon. It is a cause of regret that IPPs were ever introduced; their Labour author now acknowledges that. They were not reserved for the most serious of offences, too often effectively becoming a life sentence for those who had committed minor crimes. Does the Secretary of State agree that much more needs to be done to provide opportunities for people who are now way over their short IPP tariffs to prove that they no longer pose a risk to the public?
It was right that the coalition Government abolished IPPs, which were brought in by the previous Labour Government, and there is consensus that that was the right thing to do. The difficulty is that the Parole Board now assesses in each case whether someone with an IPP sentence would be a risk to society, and the board must obviously ensure that public protection is put first. It is also right that we seek to do everything we can to rehabilitate IPP prisoners so that they can be released into the community.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the separation of powers is an important element of our constitution, and that as a general rule the involvement of the courts in matters of political argument or debate may threaten that principle and create a dangerous precedent?
This country has a robust tradition of political free speech, and the electorate can and should hold politicians to account. We also have a robust tradition of the courts being capable of determining whether a case is meritorious or unmeritorious.
I think it is because that is unfair. We are looking carefully at how we manage demand in the family justice system. We are ensuring that legal support is offered within the family courts, and that can take many forms, not just legal aid. For example, the personal support unit now operates in 23 courts across 18 cities, so we are looking to make sure that the right support is given to those in the family courts at the right point in the legal process.
My Harlow constituent waited eight hours in a sexual assault referral centre, unable to wash and in a state of emotional distress, after a man attempted to rape her. What steps is the Ministry of Justice taking to ensure that sexual assault referral centres are properly staffed to assist survivors of sexual assault and reduce waiting times?
My right hon. Friend makes an important point. SARCs fall under the remit of the Department of Health and Social Care, but NHS England commissioned a report last year to assess the current state and future needs of the SARC workforce. Alongside SARCs and other victim support services, I have increased the funding available to rape and sexual violence support services by 10%, moving the funding from an annual to a three-year cycle.
Last month the Scottish Government raised the age of criminal responsibility to 12 years, which should ensure that young children are not left with criminal records that follow them into adulthood. In England, however, the age of criminal responsibility is 10 years. Will the Government consider following the Scottish Government’s approach?
We have no plans at present, but I am conscious that England’s age of criminal responsibility is lower than in most western countries. I am sure this matter will be kept under review.
Having worked with his predecessor, it is clear to me that new technology in prisons can help with rehabilitation, so what plans does my hon. and learned Friend have in this area?
My hon. Friend is right to emphasise the importance of technology in rehabilitation, which is why in-cell telephones have now been rolled out to 18 prisons and work is under way to deliver them to a further 30 prisons by March 2020. The introduction of basic computers, with the necessary controls, can allow prisoners to start managing some of their day-to-day tasks ahead of potential release.
As I mentioned in response to a previous question, I have increased by 10% the funding available to rape and sexual violence support services. The hon. Gentleman highlights a specific case, and I would be delighted to meet him to discuss it.
Both as a constituency MP and when I look at the media, I am concerned by increasing reports of cases being adjourned, often at the last minute, for the lack of a judge being available, particularly in the Crown and county courts. At the same time, courtrooms sit empty and Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service is not advertising vacancies for recorders—part-time judges who are willing and able to fill those vacancies. Will the Minister urgently investigate what appears to be a lack of joined-up government by HMCTS?
I am very aware of this issue, which I have been discussing with various people at the top end of HMCTS. It is important that we recruit sufficient judges, on which we need to do better. I will happily discuss it with my hon. Friend and provide a fuller answer when I appear before his Select Committee next week.
Is the Minister concerned that figures released in March show that prosecutions for rape are now at a five-year low? Victims could be reluctant to come forward because they have lost faith in the justice system. Will he commit to working closely with the Home Office and the Law Officers to look into this worrying situation?
The hon. Lady raises an important point. She alludes to the fact that this falls more directly within the remit of the Attorney General’s office but, of course, it cuts across a number of Departments. I have already had a number of meetings with my opposite number in the Home Office and with my new colleague, the prisons Minister, when he was Solicitor General. I look forward to further such meetings to get to the bottom of exactly what the hon. Lady highlights.
HMP Leyhill is a category B prison in south Gloucestershire. The number of abscondees is reducing year on year, but there remains significant concern in the community following an incident last year involving a school just half a mile away. Will the Prisons Minister be good enough to visit south Gloucestershire to see this prison and to talk about the emergency mechanisms that need to be put in place?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and I am more than happy to visit Her Majesty’s Prison Leyhill not just to look at that specific issue but to see the conditions in that category B prison for myself.
The hon. Lady raises a good example of a position of trust, which is the sort of thing I want to look at. If she wishes to write to me with further details, I will make sure we include it in the review we are conducting.
Patrick Mackay, formerly of my constituency, is one of Britain’s least known but most dangerous serial killers. In 1975, he admitted to three counts of manslaughter, but he is strongly suspected of carrying out a further 10 killings, including that of a four-year-old boy. Mackay is now eligible for parole and may well have already been moved to an open prison. Does the Secretary of State share my deep concern about the potential release of this man, still only in his 60s, and will he enable me to make the fullest possible representations to the Parole Board?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend who has taken up this issue tirelessly. As he knows, the Parole Board will release a life sentence prisoner only when, in its view, it is no longer necessary on the grounds of public protection for a prisoner to remain in custody. In making its determination, the board will consider reports from those who manage the prisoner and have assessed the risk of harm he presents. The board will also consider all relevant evidence of the prisoner’s risk of harm, and if my hon. Friend has such evidence I am sure it will be listened to closely. We will ensure that it is fully considered for inclusion in the dossier of reports given to the Parole Board.
I gently advise the hon. Gentleman that in his constituency that would be a matter for the Scottish Government. Beyond that, I recognise that it is an issue across the country. We wish to look at that in our legal services action plan to make sure that, if people are struggling to access justice, we have a new set of guidelines on how we keep open various courts and tribunals that will help to make sure that our courts remain as accessible as possible to as many people as possible.