Justice – in the House of Commons on 16th May 2023.
If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities.
I am delighted to have been appointed Justice Secretary and Lord Chancellor. The rule of law, access to justice and the independence of the judiciary are the bedrock of a safe, free and fair society. It is an honour to continue this Government’s work to deliver a justice system that puts victims of crime first and ensures fairness for all.
Since my appointment I have taken the Victims and Prisoners Bill through its Second Reading, just yesterday. It is an important Bill that will improve the service that victims receive and strengthen our parole system. I have announced the introduction of 13,000 body-worn cameras to help keep our prisons safe and secure. I was pleased to meet the dedicated staff at HMP Isis, who work tirelessly to provide a safe and rehabilitative environment. I have also had introductory meetings with the legal sector, and look forward to engaging more with our excellent legal professionals in the weeks and months ahead.
May I welcome my right hon. and learned Friend the Justice Secretary to his rightful place?
In welcoming the measures designed to protect children in the Government’s Online Safety Bill, will my right hon. and learned Friend outline what further action his Department is taking in relation to the criminal justice system to improve prosecution rates for serious offences involving minors, particularly in relation to sex offenders who target young people online?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this point. The Government have invested significantly in new capabilities for law enforcement, including our specially trained network of undercover online officers, to arrest offenders committing online child sexual abuse. Co-ordinated National Crime Agency and policing activity against those offenders is currently resulting in over 800 arrests per month, and we have also delivered a further £4.5 million for organisations supporting victims and survivors of child sexual abuse.
I call the shadow Secretary of State.
I am delighted to welcome the Secretary of State to his place for the second day running. I have been reading his speeches with interest. He once said the Conservatives should
“do away with the argument that…we are somehow soft on crime.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 644, c. 90.]
Is it not “soft” to tell judges that they cannot lock up dangerous criminals?
Let us just get a few things absolutely clear. We believe in criminals spending longer in custody. It is strange that when there was the opportunity to vote for rapists and serious violent criminals to spend two thirds of their sentence in custody, the hon. Gentleman voted against that. Indeed, I happen to remember, from when I was at the Bar, that his party did exactly the same in the Criminal Justice Act 2003. Whereas previously, people serving sentences over four years would serve two thirds of their sentence in custody, they cut it to half: soft on crime, soft on the causes of crime.
I am wondering whether the Secretary of State’s handover was a little rushed, because his predecessor wrote to judges and told them not to lock up dangerous criminals, because the Government have run out of prison places. That sounds soft to me, because it tells criminals they can get away with crime. Will he withdraw the letter and tell judges to lock up criminals who deserve to be behind bars?
Well, criminals do deserve to be behind bars, which is why I am proud of the fact that when it comes to rape, which is an appalling crime that robs innocence and destroys lives, we have ensured that criminals convicted of that offence get prison sentences a third longer than they did in 2010. I am pleased to be able to record that the numbers convicted of that appalling offence, in the last 12 months for which figures are available, are 10% higher than under the Labour Government.
I have raised before in the House the case of Sharlotte-Sky, a six-year-old girl who tragically lost her life in Norton Green when her killer was driving his vehicle while speeding and on his phone, and with drink and drugs in his system. It took Sharlotte’s mother, Claire, over a year to get her justice because the perpetrator refused to give consent to his blood samples being tested until the very last minute. Will my right hon. and learned Friend support my campaign for Sharlotte’s law, which would reform section 7A of the Road Traffic Act 1988 to take away the need for consent when death has occurred because of a motor vehicle?
I express my sincere condolences and deep sorrow to the family of my hon. Friend’s young constituent. As he knows, the provisions in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 fulfilled our long-standing commitment to increase the maximum penalty from 14 years to life imprisonment for the offence of causing death by dangerous driving. The Department for Transport is considering the publication of a call for evidence on motoring offences. While work is continuing as to its precise scope and timing, it is expected to include aspects of drink and drug driving and the failure to stop and report, with the opportunity to raise other matters. I encourage my hon. Friend to write to me and the Secretary of State for Transport, and I would be happy to discuss these matters further.
I welcome the Justice Secretary to his place. Does his agree with the former Prime Minister John Major, who recently said that
“many short sentences are pointless and that a non-custodial sentence would be more effective and, perhaps, more fair”?
It is absolutely right that the judiciary, who I respect enormously, do justice on the facts before them. If they feel they can do justice and provide a remedy for the crime that has been committed against society through an unpaid work order, some sort of community disposal or a suspended sentence order, that is a matter for them. The volume of unpaid work orders has gone up, and we are very keen to ensure that the rehabilitation or the unpaid work takes place as close as possible to the community that has been offended against, so that if there has been criminal damage or shoplifting, individuals should pay back their debt to the very society that they betrayed. That is what we would invite courts, in the exercise of their independent discretion, to do.
How many probate cases are awaiting a decision for seven weeks or more, and what is the Minister doing to speed up the decision-making process?
The number is roughly 9,135, which is about 15% of the backlog. The cases for which all the documentation has been received will take six to eight weeks to complete. We have recruited 100 additional members of staff to ensure that we can clear the more complex cases, as we realise that the issuing of probate is important.
According to figures from the Ministry of Justice, the number of theft and burglary cases prosecuted in a Crown court by West Mercia police that have been awaiting completion for one to two years increased more than threefold between the first quarter of 2020 and the first quarter of 2022. Can the Minister provide more up-to-date data on those backlogs, and tell us what steps he is taking to ensure that the victims of such crimes in North Shropshire see justice within a reasonable timescale?
As we have said in earlier answers, we are trying to ensure that the outstanding caseload continues to diminish by continuing to increase the judiciary. There will be 1,000 more judges this year and next, we are increasing court capacity—there is now no cap on the number of sitting days—and there are also the 24 Nightingale courts. All this will make a tangible difference to the capacity of the court system, which means that the cases in the hon. Lady’s constituency can be heard more quickly.
What plans does my right hon. Friend have to use prisoners to help to fill labour shortages, and what assessment has he made of the extent to which that may drive down reoffending rates and help to improve the employability of prison leavers?
As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State explained earlier, getting offenders and ex-offenders into work has a material impact on the odds against their returning to a life of crime. There is a fantastic opportunity to maximise that because of the tightness of the labour market. My hon. Friend is right about the need to match local skills needs, and the employment advisory boards are there to ensure that that happens.
Does the Secretary of State agree with the assessment of the House of Lords Constitution Committee, which has warned that it is not appropriate for courts other than the Supreme Court and the Scottish High Court of Justiciary to have power to depart from the interpretations of EU case law, and that allowing lower courts to reinterpret EU case law risks causing significant legal uncertainty?
These are sensitive constitutional issues. I should be happy to write to the hon. Gentleman.
Two Chelmsford GCSE students, Louis and Mason, have been engaged in a citizenship project on our justice system and reducing reoffending rates. Given that we know employment can help to reduce reoffending, what progress is being made on helping offenders and ex-offenders into work?
My right hon. Friend Damian Hinds, the Prisons Minister, has talked about this a little. It is very important for people within jails to be given the chance to connect with the opportunities outside. I recently visited HMP Berwyn, which has an employment hub that allows individuals to receive not just career support but, potentially, the interview that they need with an employer on the outside via digital connectivity. I know that my right hon. Friend does excellent work in her local prison, HMP Chelmsford, which is improving greatly following a difficult period, and is now coming out on the other side. We remain committed to ensuring that defendants can get into employment to turn their lives around, but also to repay their debt to society in becoming contributing members of it.
The Sex Matters petition on clarifying the Equality Act 2010 to make sex a biological definition of a protected characteristic is due to be debated in Westminster Hall shortly. What preparations are being made to clarify and strengthen all protected characteristics, and to ensure that freedom of speech is protected as well?
I think that any such review and analysis would be led by the Government Equalities Office, but I can of course speak with reference to the prison system. On the particular issue of transgender prisoners on the women’s prison estate in England and Wales, our approach is that transgender women can be held on the main women’s estate only if risk-assessed to be safe. That is part of the reason why more than 90% of transgender women in custody in England and Wales have been held on the men's estate, compared with only 50% in Scotland. The further changes in our policy strengthen the position, meaning that no transgender woman convicted of a sexual or violent offence and retaining male genitalia can be assigned to the general women’s estate other than in truly exceptional circumstances, with ministerial sign-off.
A few weeks ago, I visited Poundland at Sailmakers shopping centre in Ipswich, as well as the Military Unit shop and Essential Vintage. All those businesses are at their wits’ end with repeated thieving in their shops, to the point that one of them has temporarily shut its doors. Does the Lord Chancellor agree that the criminal justice system needs to be far harder on those who are repeatedly caught shoplifting? It is debilitating for a town centre, and we should not let cultural sensitivities get in the way.
My hon. Friend is right. Crime is crime, and cultural sensitivities should play no part in the police’s enthusiasm for cracking down on it. I am pleased that 20,000 police officers have been recruited, fulfilling the Government’s manifesto commitment. That means that there are more officers on the street not just deterring crime, but ensuring that arrests can be made and people can be brought to justice.
I realise that the Secretary of State has only recently been appointed, and I welcome him to his place. Does he have any plans to undertake an assessment of the functioning of the law on joint enterprise?
The law on joint enterprise is a sensitive issue. I happen to know that it can be a very important prosecutorial tool to ensure that those who have helped in or encouraged the commission of a serious offence can be brought to justice. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Court of Appeal considered very carefully the scope of the law of joint enterprise to ensure that it catches only people who are truly culpable. There are currently no plans to reform the law, but I will of course consider that sensitive matter if he wishes to raise it with me. I would be happy to have that conversation.
I have said on several occasions in this place that prison officers are the hidden heroes of our public services. Twenty-two came out of hiding and were in plain view during the coronation, when they lined the route of the parade. Will my right hon. and learned Friend join me in congratulating them and welcoming that recognition, which raises the profile of an excellent career? I happen to know that HMP Aylesbury is recruiting.
My hon. Friend is an excellent recruiting sergeant for HMP Aylesbury. He is right: I was recently at HMP Isis and spoke to some young band 3 and 4 prison officers. They are remarkable people who do a difficult job and have to show that precious quality of judgment, which is needed in a prison and elsewhere, on when they need to intervene robustly and when they need to show sensitivity. I am proud that we have invested heavily, through a £100 million scheme, to ensure that every prison officer has body-worn video. Those officers told me how that dials down potentially volatile situations and ensures that, on those rare occasions when violence happens, those individuals who make bad decisions can be held properly to account.
When the Secretary of State holds discussions with Cabinet colleagues on the Illegal Migration Bill, will he ensure that the public perception that there is a massive distinction between people who flee persecution and oppression and arrive in this country to a welcome, and those who leave countries with no oppression and arrive here illegally, remains the case?
That is at the heart of the matter. This is a humane, decent and fair country. We have shown that through our track record and will continue to do so. Since 2015, this nation has opened its doors to 500,000 people fleeing persecution, from Syria, Afghanistan and Hong Kong. They are in all our communities across the United Kingdom and we are proud to welcome them. However, if we want to ensure that that humane instinct is not undermined or somehow brought into disrepute, we have to be fair. That means ensuring that those who traffic people, or those who arrive illegally and try to jump the queue, do not do so without consequence.
Can the Minister say what the Department is doing to support armed forces veterans in the criminal justice system?
We are doing a huge amount, actually. Some of it is to do with what happens in custody. I have been to some prisons that have veterans’ wings, and it is really moving to see, with a lot of the artwork including regimental cap badges and other insignia. That is an important aspect, but critically the chances of people going straight on leaving custody are influenced by three things: whether they have a home, whether they have a job and whether any mental health or drug issues have been addressed. One of the things I am most proud of is that we have rolled out a pilot scheme to ensure that those who leave have a guaranteed 12 weeks of accommodation, so that they can start to rebuild relationships and get into the kind of employment that will help them. That is useful for all offenders, but particularly for armed service personnel, who I know want to go straight and do the right thing.
I recently wrote to the Secretary of State’s predecessor about what his Department calls the “temporary release failure” from Her Majesty’s Prison Sudbury, as it was at the time, of the known criminal Dean Woods, which is on the public record and is of grave concern not only to the Prison Service in England but to some of my constituents, given what he was convicted of and what he is accused of by police forces across Europe. Since last year, has the Department done anything to make sure that Mr Woods is returned not to a category D prison but to a category B prison, and to ensure that it works with colleagues across the rest of Europe to make sure that, if he is to be sent to prison for other possible actions, it happens as quickly as possible?
If I may, I offer to meet the hon. Gentleman to talk through that detailed case.