Topical Questions

Justice – in the House of Commons at on 21 November 2023.

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Photo of Munira Wilson Munira Wilson Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Education)

If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities.

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

Since the last Justice questions, we have introduced a Criminal Justice Bill, which responds rapidly and robustly to the latest criminal threats. It will include strengthened laws to criminalise those who breach trust by taking intimate images without consent; broaden the offence of encouraging and assisting self-harm; give judges the power to order offenders to attend sentencing hearings; and enable the probation service to polygraph-test more terrorists and sex offenders. Meanwhile, the new Sentencing Bill has public protection at its core, making the severest punishments available for the most dangerous offenders, such as murderers who kill with sexual or sadistic conduct, to take them out of circulation forever. It will protect the public by breaking the cycle of reoffending to reduce crime.

We have also welcomed my hon. Friends the Members for Newbury (Laura Farris) and for Orpington (Gareth Bacon) to the Front Bench. As I think the House has already observed, they will make a formidable contribution to public life.

Photo of Munira Wilson Munira Wilson Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Education)

The Prime Minister and certain other senior Government figures have suggested that the European convention on human rights should be disapplied in some asylum cases, and the deputy chairman of the Conservative party, Lee Anderson, has said that the Government should simply ignore last week’s Supreme Court ruling. Does the Justice Secretary agree?

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

The Government are confident that we can deliver on the priorities of the British people while remaining within the four corners of our international legal obligations. Make no mistake, we are determined to ensure that our borders are secure. This is a rule of law issue. It should not be the case that those who try to jump the queue and arrive illegally should derive some sort of advantage from that. We understand that clearly on the Government Benches and we will do everything we can to stop the boats.

Photo of Andy Carter Andy Carter Conservative, Warrington South

One of the primary reasons for adjournment and relisting in magistrates courts is a lack of trained probation officers to carry out pre-sentence stand-down reports. Could the Minister outline what steps he is taking to address this so that courts can get through caseloads more speedily?

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

My hon. Friend speaks with great authority as a magistrate, and I know from my own experience as a practitioner how important stand-down reports are. They provide the bench with information about the offender—their relationship situation, their record of previous convictions, their mental health problems and so on—so that the court can tailor a disposal that punishes the offender but also progresses their rehabilitation. We are working closely with the probation service to ensure that that resource is properly allocated so that we can have more stand-down reports to ensure better justice on the facts of each case.

Photo of Alex Cunningham Alex Cunningham Shadow Minister (Justice)

Contrary to the claims of Ministers at every Question Time that they are getting the courts backlog sorted out, they are not, and the pain just drags on for victims. The Crown court backlog reached a record 65,000 cases at the end of June. Nearly 5,000 of them have been waiting for two years and 36,000 cases have defendants on bail. Why are things still getting worse?

Photo of Mike Freer Mike Freer Assistant Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

I have to say, Mr Speaker, that God loves a trier. Yes, the backlog has gone up. The hon. Gentleman will know that post covid and post the Criminal Bar Association strike, the backlog did increase. On top of that, this Government have cracked down on crime with more police officers, and that has meant more people being charged and appearing in court. We are addressing this with unlimited sitting days. We recruited 1,000 judges across all jurisdictions last year and we are doing the same this year. We have invested in the court estate to improve resilience, and we have extended 24 Nightingale courts to ensure that we have capacity.

Photo of Alex Cunningham Alex Cunningham Shadow Minister (Justice)

Come on now—we know that the statistics tell a very different story. The Crown courts remain in crisis, and what about the civil courts? The quarterly civil justice statistics from April to June 2023 show that the average time taken for small claims and multi-fast-tracked claims to go to trial was 52 weeks and 78 weeks respectively. Is it the same excuse for the crisis in the civil courts?

Photo of Mike Freer Mike Freer Assistant Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

Since the Government have increased the amount of money spent on the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service, we have recruited judges across the jurisdiction to help in the civil courts, increased the number of days that fee-paid judges can do from 30 days to 80 days a year, introduced regional virtual pilots to support London and the south-east, and invested in mediation. All of this is ensuring that people have access to justice in a court system that is dealing with higher numbers of cases than ever before.

Photo of Priti Patel Priti Patel Conservative, Witham

The Minister will be aware that approximately £1 million of taxpayers’ money was spent, including through legal aid, on finally deporting the vile sex offender Yaqub Ahmed, whose crimes were just unimaginable. Will the Secretary of State and the Minister ensure that legal aid processes are reviewed and, importantly, dust off the previous plans to introduce wasted cost orders in immigration cases so that lawyers who pursue these spurious cases are prevented from doing so?

Photo of Mike Freer Mike Freer Assistant Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

As my right hon. Friend will appreciate, I cannot comment on individual cases, but I can reassure her that the payment of wasted or unreasonable costs can already be ordered by the tribunal if it considers it appropriate. Given the issue that she has raised, however, I would be more than happy to meet her to ensure that her concerns are conveyed firmly to those responsible for the reviews.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Labour, Hammersmith

Eight courts have so far been named as containing reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete—RAAC—and three of them are closed. The Government will not say which prisons are affected, but will they guarantee that funding for RAAC removal will not come at the expense of existing maintenance schemes, given the huge backlog of repairs in courts and prisons?

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

The hon. Gentleman is right about the eight court buildings, but that is in the context of an estate of over 300 buildings. It is important to note, however, that we have massively increased the budget for the court estate, and that enables us to do two things. First, we can take on more projects and also plan them because we have guaranteed this over two years, meaning that we can plan in a more efficient and effective way. The second issue so far as prisons are concerned is that separate considerations apply because the buildings are used for a whole range of different purposes; there is the prison itself, but there are plenty of ancillary buildings. This is all being inspected in the normal way, and the budget is certainly there to effect remediations if required.

Photo of Matt Vickers Matt Vickers Conservative, Stockton South

Last week I visited my local Co-op store in Hartburn, where I met staff and Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers reps as part of Respect for Shopworkers Week. There are around 867 assaults on shop workers not each month, not each week but every single day. We cannot go on like this. Will my right hon. and learned Friend look again at what we can do to tackle this issue and deliver justice for shop workers?

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Those people are on the frontline of society, acting effectively in public to do an incredibly important public service. We have already moved to ensure that the courts can treat assaults on shop workers as an aggravating factor when it comes to sentencing. To be clear, this means that, in appropriate cases, the fact that a person has assaulted a retail worker can mean the difference between a non-custodial penalty and a custodial penalty, which is absolutely right. Those who behave in such a cowardly way should expect all consequences.

Photo of Dan Jarvis Dan Jarvis Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Security)

The rule of law is sacrosanct, isn’t it?

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis Conservative, Northampton North

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the judiciary must not make incendiary comments about Israel? At Walsall magistrates court, a district judge recently acquitted defendants who had vandalised a factory, believing it to be supplying Israel, and is reported to have told them their action was

“proportionate in comparison to the crimes against humanity which they were acting to stop.”

Does he agree that judges are supposed to uphold the law, not encourage its breach? This brings our legal system into ill-repute, so will he take this from me as a complaint to the Judicial Conduct Investigations Office?

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

I simply note the question. Plainly, I make no comment on the specifics. I have heard my right hon. and learned Friend’s point, and I will happily take it up with him subsequently.

Photo of Alex Sobel Alex Sobel Labour/Co-operative, Leeds North West

The Ministry of Justice has released its latest quarterly statistics on deaths and self-harm in the England and Wales prison estate. The rate of self-harm incidents among female prisoners went up by a stark 63% compared with the same quarter last year, and there was an overall 24% increase in self-inflicted deaths. What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the impact of the MOJ’s policies on these increases across the prison estate?

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight this, as every death in custody is a tragedy. We continue to do all we can to improve the safety of prisoners, both in that respect and in respect of reducing instances of self-harm. We are continuing to deliver on our safety commitment outlined in the prisons strategy White Paper, including by introducing more ligature-resistant cells, funding a study to understand the extent of deaths, and rolling out an emotional resilience and peer-support programme in six prisons. Of course, our staff are vital to this, and I take the opportunity to pay tribute to them; we are investing to support them to continue to do that work.

Photo of Wendy Morton Wendy Morton Conservative, Aldridge-Brownhills

In the summer, the Government made a welcome announcement on banning zombie knives and machetes and doubling the sentences for supplying a knife to an under-18 and for possessing a knife with intent to cause harm. Now we are in a new Session, will the Secretary of State set out the timeline for bringing forward legislation to make this happen?

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, who is a passionate and principled campaigner on the issue of public safety. These measures will find their way into the Criminal Justice Bill. I look forward to her support, which I know will be forthcoming. Let us hope that hon. Members right across the House will put public protection as one of their priorities.

Photo of Jim McMahon Jim McMahon Labour/Co-operative, Oldham West and Royton

New figures released by the Co-op Group show that a staggering 300,000 incidents of shoplifting, abuse, violence and antisocial behaviour in Co-op stores have been reported this year alone. Surely the best way to stop violence against shop workers is to make it a stand-alone offence, as requested by the Labour party, the Co-op party and the USDAW trade union.

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

It is important to establish what is already available to the police: section 39 on common assault, section 47 on assault occasioning actual bodily harm and—heaven forbid—sections 20 and 18, which relate to more serious cases of grievous bodily harm. Plus, if an individual is convicted on any of those grounds, the courts can—indeed, ought to—consider assault on a retail worker as an aggravating factor. As I have indicated, that can mean the difference between a non-custodial and a custodial penalty.

We will keep these matters under review, but the central point is that before someone can go before the court, they have to be arrested. That is why I am delighted that we have more police officers than at any time in our history, ready to take the fight to those who assault shop workers.

Photo of David Davis David Davis Conservative, Haltemprice and Howden

My right hon. and learned Friend has a terrific record on dealing with SLAPPs—strategic lawsuits against public participation—so he will understand how greedy lawyers encourage their billionaire clients to crush their opponents by extending court cases, dragging them out and multiplying them. What has not been taken on board is that that also costs the taxpayer millions of pounds. I think those lawyers should have to meet those costs. With that in mind, will he publish the costs incurred by SLAPPs cases?

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

No one in this House has done more than my right hon. Friend to clamp down on this iniquitous behaviour, and I am pleased that we have been able to make some progress. He makes a really important point: every day that is spent in court pursuing ill-founded and abusive litigation is time that could be spent on other matters in the public interest. I will certainly look into the interesting suggestion he makes about publishing the cost of that behaviour.

Photo of David Linden David Linden Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Social Justice)

After the Supreme Court ruling on Rwanda, the hon. Member for Ashfield (Lee Anderson) said that the Government should “ignore the laws” and put planes in the air anyway. The Prime Minister has failed to distance himself from those comments. Does that disappoint the Justice Secretary?

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

I refer the hon. Gentleman to the answer I gave a few moments ago. There is understandable righteous indignation about the situation that exists. We believe that we can comply and deliver our policies within the four corners of international law—that is our approach. However, those who arrive illegally threaten to corrode the rule of law, because that of itself sends out a poor subliminal message that those who do so can act with impunity. That does not strengthen the rule of law.

Photo of James Sunderland James Sunderland Chair, Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill

The Justice Secretary will know of the hard work undertaken in this Parliament to bring the Desecration of War Memorials Bill into law. Elements of that Bill were subsumed into the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022, but will he now undertake to complete the job?

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

My hon. Friend is one of two hon. Members who have fought hard on this issue, and he does so from the position of having served his country. It is completely iniquitous that people should seek to act in a way that desecrates war memorials. His specific point seems utterly compelling and I am happy to discuss it with him hereafter.

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

The Justice Secretary is an experienced lawyer, for whom I have a great deal of respect. Will he explain to the Prime Minister that following the Supreme Court’s judgment on Rwanda, merely to legislate that the facts on the ground in Rwanda are the opposite of what the Supreme Court found them to be will make no difference to the problems the Supreme Court has identified, and will simply make the Government a laughing stock?

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

I thank the hon. and learned Lady for her point. At the risk of harming her political career, the respect is entirely mutual. In a rule-of-law country, people can disagree with the decision of a court but they must respect it. We respect the ruling and of course we will abide by court orders, but it is also right that we carefully consider what the Supreme Court said and seek to adjust appropriately. We will do what we properly and lawfully can do to stop the boats. That is our mission and the mission of the British people, and we will deliver on it.

Photo of Edward Timpson Edward Timpson Conservative, Eddisbury

I welcome my right hon. and learned Friend’s commitment to increase the use of tagging, where appropriate, to reduce the amount of reoffending. In doing so, what plans does he have to include high-risk domestic abusers and, potentially in the future, those who are illegal drug users?

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

Not for the first or last time, my hon. and learned Friend has got absolutely to the point. We have deliberately constructed the policy so that if an individual presents a significant threat to a particular individual—often a spouse or a partner—the presumption would not apply. That is critically important and I was happy to discuss that point with Women’s Aid and other relevant bodies. We are on the side of victims of domestic abuse and violence, and nothing that we do will cut across that important principle.

Photo of Imran Hussain Imran Hussain Labour, Bradford East

Supporting offenders in practising their faith is regularly cited as playing a key role in their rehabilitation in prisons. However, as the Minister will know from my frequent correspondence with the chief executive of His Majesty’s Prison Service, many prisons either do not provide the facilities required or actively hinder offenders in practising their religion. HMP Full Sutton has been brought to my attention as one such example. Given its importance, will the Minister assure me that a full review of faith provision across the prison estate will be conducted and guarantee that no one will be denied the ability to freely practise their religion?

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. He is absolutely right to highlight not only the right of people to practise their religion, but the important role that that can play for those individuals in coping with prison life, rehabilitation and getting on the straight and narrow when they come out. I am happy to engage with him directly on any specific case that he wishes to bring up, and it is an issue that I am happy to look at.

Photo of Vicky Ford Vicky Ford Conservative, Chelmsford

I thank the Courts Minister for his recent letter on recruitment and retention of legal advisers in Essex and the impact that that is having on court listings. Although I know that he and I agree about the independence of the judiciary regarding individual cases, will he meet me to discuss what more might be done to fill the vacancies for legal advisers in Essex?

Photo of Gregory Campbell Gregory Campbell Shadow DUP Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

The Secretary of State has alluded to the continuing reduction in reoffending rates among those leaving prison. Does he agree that central to maintaining confidence in the wider community is that the reoffending rate goes down further still?

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

The hon. Gentleman makes a simple but incredibly important point. We want to follow the evidence so that we protect the public. We will do so, on the one hand, by locking up the most serious offenders for longer and taking them out of circulation, and, on the other, by cutting offending. Fewer crimes mean a better protected public. That is the approach that we will take.

Photo of Rob Butler Rob Butler Conservative, Aylesbury

Yesterday, I met former prisoner LJ Flanders who, while serving his sentence, devised a fitness regime that can be conducted in a cell with no special gym equipment. With the support of Bucks Association for the Care of Offenders, he has just run a two-week training programme in HMP Aylesbury to train other prisoners to provide coaching and mentoring of a similar style. Will my right hon. Friend please encourage everybody in His Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service, particularly governors, to facilitate such courses to reduce reoffending?

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who knows about what he speaks. I pay tribute to him for his work in the criminal justice system. He highlights an example that sounds extremely interesting. I would be happy to meet him to hear more about it and to see where we can take things from there.