Topical Questions

Justice – in the House of Commons on 29th June 2021.

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Photo of Fleur Anderson Fleur Anderson Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office)

If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities.

Photo of Robert Buckland Robert Buckland The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

Over the weekend, we launched the unified probation service for England and Wales. It was the culmination of huge amounts of preparation over two years, and I am hugely grateful to probation colleagues and frontline staff for making it happen. We have invested £310 million in that time to recruit 1,000 extra probation officers, with 1,500 more on the way, alongside making more use of technology such as GPS and sobriety tags. We are determined to ensure that the millions of hours of unpaid work handed down to offenders every year are served more visibly, keeping our towns, cities and our countryside clean. I have said many times that every Department of Government should be a criminal justice department, and the new probation service will be at the heart of a more joined-up approach with police, health services, local authorities and others to cut crime and keep the public safe from harm.

Photo of Fleur Anderson Fleur Anderson Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office)

On 17 June, I wrote to the Justice Secretary about probation services, raising a deeply concerning whistleblower case in the probation service. When my constituent first joined the service, there were 10 members of staff in her team. At the end of 2020, three members of staff had left and a further three were on long-term sick leave, and the case load was overwhelming. Does the Secretary of State accept that the 60% drop in staffing levels presents an unacceptable risk to public safeguarding, the welfare of probation service officers and the rehabilitation of offenders?

Photo of Robert Buckland Robert Buckland The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

I will make sure that the hon. Lady’s letter is brought to my attention. She sent it just over a week ago. I will not comment about the individual case, but it will of course be looked at carefully. She will be encouraged to know that as a result of the investment we are making, 1,000 more probation officers have been recruited already. We are going for another 1,500, and that means that, together with the changes to how case loads are managed, probation officers will be supported and encouraged, and the sort of issues that she raises I believe will start to diminish, because that is my determination. I want to sing the praises of an unsung public service.

Photo of Felicity Buchan Felicity Buchan Conservative, Kensington

I am very concerned by the number of constituents who have approached me who have been the victims of online and telephone economic crime. Can the Secretary of State update the House as to what he is doing to tackle such crime?

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk Assistant Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this issue. The Government’s response to the economic crime threat is set out in our economic crime plan, which lists seven strategic priorities for combating crime through a specially convened public-private partnership. That includes a number of specific actions, including focusing on high-harm fraud types through online activity such as courier fraud, romance fraud and investment fraud. We are considering whether further legislative changes need to be brought in to provide law enforcement with the tools it needs to combat these emerging threats.

Photo of David Lammy David Lammy Shadow Lord Chancellor and Shadow Secretary of State for Justice

Both the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister have apologised for the Government’s failure of rape victims resulting in record low prosecution and conviction rates. In attempting to atone for these mistakes it is vital that the Government are honest with victims. Last week, in Prime Minister’s questions, the Prime Minister claimed he was investing another £1 billion in clearing the court backlogs, but in the spending review the figure announced to address the backlogs is £275 million. I am sure that the Prime Minister was not deliberately misleading the House. Will the Secretary of State correct the record?

Photo of Robert Buckland Robert Buckland The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

The right hon. Gentleman raises an issue that I think I can help to clarify for him. With regard to the specific figure, that of course relates to spending during this coming year. We spent another equivalent sum in the previous year on court recovery. Indeed, when you look at the figures that we were spending anyway on new technology in our courts, and indeed the Crown Prosecution Service expenditure as well, then the figure actually is the correct one. He should realise that it is not just the Ministry of Justice that is funding court recovery and the effects of covid; the Attorney General’s Office and indeed the Home Office as well have a responsibility with regard to victims. So I am afraid that fox is well and truly shot.

Photo of David Lammy David Lammy Shadow Lord Chancellor and Shadow Secretary of State for Justice

I have to say that the Secretary of State’s verbosity serves him well.

In March, the Lord Chancellor told the Justice Committee that he had been “played for a fool” in relation to improvements at Rainsbrook secure training centre. He was clear that

“this will not happen again. Otherwise, the consequences will be extremely serious for those responsible.”

Yet this did happen again, and only a year and a half later have children been moved out of harm’s way. As the saying goes, “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.” Does the Lord Chancellor feel like a fool, and what “extremely serious” consequences will he deliver to ensure that this does not happen again?

Photo of Robert Buckland Robert Buckland The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

I am very glad that the right hon. Gentleman asks me that question because I can reassure him that as soon as the particular reports were received from the independent monitors I took swift action to make sure that the safety and wellbeing of children at Rainsbrook was preserved. That is why we ordered that children in the unit were moved. Indeed, work is carrying on with regard to the overall future of Rainsbrook. It would be wrong of me to speculate while discussions with the provider remain ongoing, but I can tell him this: I will do whatever it takes to make sure that the children in our care are protected and that all our institutions, including Rainsbrook, are run properly. I can assure him that the providers have had the message loud and clear from me and that there will be no second chances.

Photo of Stephanie Peacock Stephanie Peacock Shadow Minister (Defence)

My constituent Claire suffered 13 months of abuse at the hands of her ex-husband, who continued to stalk her after the end of their relationship. He was given a 12-month restraining order. Will the Government strengthen sentences for stalking and commit to greater support for victims?

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk Assistant Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising that matter. It is an extraordinary fact that 10 years ago stalking was not even an offence, but it was made an offence in 2012. I, together with my hon. Friend Richard Graham, had a campaign to double the maximum sentence so there is a maximum sentence of 10 years imprisonment. But it is not enough to have the punishment; we have to make sure that these matters get before the courts as well, and that is why I am grateful to the police and the courts for prioritising them. Those who stalk should know that they will be punished properly.

Photo of Jonathan Gullis Jonathan Gullis Conservative, Stoke-on-Trent North

I once again place on the record my thanks to the Lord Chancellor for backing my private Member’s Bill which called for specific protection and punishment for those who desecrate memorials and graves to our glorious dead. The people of Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke also want to know whether this change in the law will protect the statue of Sir Winston Churchill in Parliament Square, which may not be a war memorial but is an important reminder to the public of our greatest Briton.

Photo of Robert Buckland Robert Buckland The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

I thank my hon. Friend for raising an issue of genuine and widespread public concern. He will note that the phraseology in the Bill talks about memorials, which of course would include memorials such as the one to Sir Winston Churchill. The important point is that we can now move away from the court determining on the mere cost of repair to criminal damage to look at the overall cultural and emotional value of statues like that one, and indeed, ordinary “unvisited tombs”, to quote George Eliot, of people who have a great value to the local community and to their loved ones.

Photo of Kim Johnson Kim Johnson Labour, Liverpool, Riverside

The Merseyside and Vauxhall law centres in Liverpool, Riverside are extremely concerned about how constituents access the legal advice that they need in the light of the drastic impact of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 cuts on legal aid, court waiting times and availability of advice. How does the Minister intend to ensure that the sector can provide access to justice in a properly functioning legal system for those facing problems with rent arrears, welfare benefits, employment, immigration, crime and domestic violence in the wake of the pandemic?

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk Assistant Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

I thank the hon. Lady for paying tribute to law centres; she is absolutely right to do that. They do an important job of ensuring that individuals—sometimes vulnerable individuals—can get that vital legal advice and access to justice that they need. That is why, at the beginning of the pandemic, when the message came out that they might face real threats to their viability, we stepped in. The Law Centres Network asked for £3 million and we provided that. It was distributed through the network to ensure that law centres have the funds they need to continue their excellent work.

Photo of Philip Hollobone Philip Hollobone Conservative, Kettering

The number of Albanian prisoners in jail has increased from 524 in 2015 to 1,469 in 2020 and they now represent the largest single national group of foreign national offenders in custody. Although it is very good news that those criminals have been caught and sentenced, given that we have a compulsory prisoner transfer agreement with Albania, which was signed in 2013, why are those convicts not being sent back to Albania to serve out their sentences in prison in their own country?

Photo of Robert Buckland Robert Buckland The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

My hon. Friend is right to analyse the figures closely. It is interesting to note that some of the assumptions that people make about foreign nationals and where they are from are out of date. My hon. Friend is right to highlight our agreement with Albania, but operationally those issues are difficult because often the individuals whom we have identified, prosecuted and properly incarcerated will not be known to the authorities in the receiving country and there are issues with identity. However, we carry on with our joint work across Government to ensure that as many of those foreign national offenders as possible are repatriated as quickly as possible. I think the latest cumulative figure over the past five years is about 5,000, but of course I will correct the record if that proves to be incorrect.

Photo of Peter Kyle Peter Kyle Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools)

It was good to see the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State condemning the harassment of Chris Whitty in recent days. However, the irony seems to be lost that Chris Whitty experienced textbook antisocial behaviour of the kind that happens increasingly up and down our country in every single community. Will the Secretary of State explain why antisocial behaviour has been rising for five years, yet use of antisocial behaviour orders and measures has fallen? When he introduces a victims Bill, will it include measures to give victim status to people who suffer from antisocial behaviour?

Photo of Robert Buckland Robert Buckland The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

May I put on record my condemnation of the appalling incident involving Professor Whitty in the last few days? With regard to the way in which antisocial behaviour is policed, there have been welcome initiatives and, indeed, changes to the law by Government on preventive measures, particularly for young people and children. Our youth offending teams and other diversionary teams have done a lot to ensure that those issues do not end up before a court, when the damage is already done. I take the strong view that the distinction between crime and antisocial behaviour is artificial. Of course, I will look constructively at anything that we can incorporate in the forthcoming victims consultation and, indeed, the Bill, which, I assure the hon. Gentleman, will come.

Photo of Christian Wakeford Christian Wakeford Conservative, Bury South

Death by dangerous driving is not just heartbreaking for the families left behind, but has a huge impact on local communities. I am thinking in particular of Radcliffe New Road in my constituency. Will my right hon. and learned Friend highlight what work he is undertaking so that those who cause death by reckless and dangerous driving receive tougher sentences to reflect the serious nature of their crime?

Photo of Robert Buckland Robert Buckland The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

My hon. Friend is right to raise on behalf of his constituents in Bury the real damage that can be caused to the community by careless and dangerous driving. Through the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, we will increase the maximum penalties for causing death by careless driving while under the influence of drink and drugs, and for causing death by dangerous driving, from 14 years to life imprisonment. There will also be a new offence of causing serious injury by careless driving, to close a gap in the law.

Photo of Luke Evans Luke Evans Conservative, Bosworth

If reports are to be believed, my right hon. and learned Friend has used the reconsideration mechanism to re-refer the double murderer and child rapist Colin Pitchfork to the Parole Board. Can he confirm that is true? If it is, I thank him for listening to me, my hon. Friend the Member for South Leicestershire (Alberto Costa) and the people of Leicestershire, who still feel that crime vehemently. Does he agree that the legislation was brought in exactly for heinous crimes such as the Worboys case?

Photo of Robert Buckland Robert Buckland The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

I thank my hon. Friend for speaking so strongly on behalf of his constituents. Colin Pitchfork’s offences were the gravest of crimes, and the families of Lynda Mann and Dawn Ashworth still live with the pain that he caused. The independent Parole Board’s role is to assess whether he is safe for release, rather than whether he has been punished enough. I understand why this decision has affected public confidence. It has been reviewed by officials in my Department, and we found arguable grounds that the decision was irrational, so I have asked the Parole Board to reconsider it using the mechanism that my hon. Friend rightly identified.

Photo of Joanna Cherry Joanna Cherry Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Justice and Home Affairs)

Can the Secretary of State tell us why the Ministry of Justice has left the Stonewall Diversity Champions scheme? Can he reassure me that his Department will continue to respect the rights of all its LGBT employees, and indeed the rights of all those with protected characteristics, including women and those who hold gender-critical beliefs?

Photo of Robert Buckland Robert Buckland The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

I am grateful to the hon. and learned Lady for that question. I can absolutely assure her that the rights of LGBTQ+ people will be respected, honoured and celebrated by my Department. We are taking the fullest and most enthusiastic part in Pride Month, which of course is now. The issue with regard to Stonewall was simply this: my officials and I were no longer convinced that the particular scheme that we had taken part in was the right use of public money. There were concerns about the direction of that organisation, which has done so much to advance the cause of people of an LGBT+ orientation. It was with great sorrow and regret that that decision was made, but I assure the hon. and learned Lady that the underlying commitment to and passion for those issues absolutely remains.

Photo of Simon Jupp Simon Jupp Conservative, East Devon

Over 8,000 criminal cases are waiting to be resolved in Devon and Cornwall. Many of my constituents in East Devon are anxiously awaiting progress on their cases, and they feel no closer to justice. What steps is my right hon. and learned Friend taking to reducing the backlogs in Devon?

Photo of Robert Buckland Robert Buckland The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

My hon. Friend is right to raise issues affecting his constituents. He will be glad to know that in his region, huge strides have been made in magistrates and Crown courts to deal effectively with the case load. Based on the figures I see regularly, I am encouraged by the progress being made in his local courts. That is part of a national drive to deal with capacity, which we have increased through Nightingale courts. There is no limit on sitting days in the Crown court during the year ahead. If all is well with the road map later in July, the further easing of restrictions will allow even more cases to be listed, so that justice can be delivered as quickly as possible, both for my hon. Friend’s constituents and for the wider public.