Exerpts for David Hanson
Monday 02 July 2018

(1 year, 6 months ago)

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Commons Chamber
Ministry of Justice
Gareth Johnson Portrait Gareth Johnson - Hansard
2 Jul 2018, 6:57 p.m.

As a 48-year-old, I instinctively have sympathy with the point my hon. Friend makes. While the prosecution must be represented, it is absolutely essential that the defence has representation as well. That is in the interests of justice.

It is fair to say that this country, compared with the rest of the world, spends a favourable amount of money on legal aid. I concede that it is always difficult to compare the justice system with others internationally—it is not always an easy comparison to make—but if we look at the overall amount that this country puts into legal aid, we can be reasonably proud of it. However, I concede that there are huge frustrations among some of my former colleagues in the criminal justice system about being unable to represent their clients and pursue matters in the interests of justice in the way they were perhaps once able to do.

My hon. Friend is quite right that I spent some 20 years in the criminal justice system as a duty solicitor. I do not have the experience of the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian C. Lucas) of going into the cells in his area. However, I had the experience of trying to administer justice on the frontline, which is undoubtedly what happens for duty solicitors and solicitors who work in the criminal justice system. What I learned during that time is that crime is a very complicated thing. I do not believe that there is a simple solution to any of the problems we face with crime in this country. We cannot tackle it from one single angle; it needs a multifaceted approach.

I believe very strongly that criminals tend to have one thing in common, which is a selfish failure to take responsibility for their own actions, but the reasons behind that are often very complex. This sticks in my throat a bit, but to be fair, Tony Blair was actually going in the right direction when he said, “Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime”. Whether or not he took that approach is open for debate, but it is the one we need. We need to take a holistic approach to tackling crime. We cannot deal with it simply by locking up more and more people. Equally, we cannot deal with it by trying to cuddle people and to help them on their way. As I say, this needs a multifaceted approach.

It is good that on this estimates day we are concentrating on how we can ensure that society is protected, and that we do not end up trying to regain lost causes because the system has failed, which is much harder to do. Part of that is about ensuring that criminals receive the right sentences for the offences they commit, which is why I advocate expanding the scope of the unduly lenient sentence scheme. We have already taken some steps in that regard. It is right that the defence should be able to appeal against sentences that are too harsh, but in my opinion it is wrong that in so many instances the prosecution cannot appeal against sentences that are unduly lenient. For malicious wounding, actual bodily harm, child cruelty, distribution of child abuse photos, burglary and even rape, when dealt with in the youth court, the prosecution cannot appeal against the sentence handed down, however unduly lenient, because those crimes are not covered by the current scheme. That needs to change. We all agree that the punishment should fit the crime. When it does not, there should be a mechanism in place to allow appeals.

We also need the Government to be flexible in their approach to law and order issues. Government attitudes have to change in accordance with society’s attitudes. I welcomed the announcement that it will now be possible to impose a life sentence for death by dangerous driving, because too often we have seen the courts impose inadequate sentences for some of these incredibly serious crimes. I would also like to see the Crown Prosecution Service making more use of manslaughter charges in the most serious cases.

A lot of work needs to be done in this area. I congratulate the Government on some of the things they are doing to ensure that law and order are at the top of the agenda. I think that we should give this area greater priority. If we do not get our approach to law and order right, we undermine the whole fabric of our society.

David Hanson (Delyn) (Lab) Hansard
2 Jul 2018, 7:02 p.m.

I thank the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee for agreeing to the debate and the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) for introducing it. The debate is about the Ministry of Justice’s estimates. In practice, that means that it is about how we protect the public; how we turn around the lives of offenders by rehabilitating them so that they can go back into society; how we have a proper through-the-gate system to ensure that people leave prison in a better state than when they went in; and, in particular, how we reduce reoffending by ensuring positive inputs in prison.

The challenge for the Minister today—I will be particularly interested to hear his contribution—is to explain how he will do all that against the backdrop of the challenges we have faced over the past eight or nine years, and the funding regime over the next three or four years of the current cycle. He will know, although it is still important to remind him, that there are some serious funding challenges. We have seen a 40% decrease in funding for prisons and probation, which are the areas I will focus on today. The annual budget will have fallen from £9.3 billion in current prices in 2010-11 to £5.6 billion by 2019-20, and we are facing potential cuts of £800 million from April 2017 to April 2020. The funding challenge is important because, as the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst explained, prisoner numbers have not fallen. If anything, the seriousness of offences has risen, the age and infirmity of prisoners have risen and the number of prisoners reoffending in under 12 months has risen. The level of violent crime in our prisons today is a serious challenge.

The Minister’s first challenge today is therefore to explain to the House how he will achieve what I know he believes to be laudable objectives over the next few years, despite the massive reduction in funding to date and in the future. He needs to explain how he will manage the challenges resulting from his Government’s decision to outsource some of the services that he wants to improve as part of his back to basics campaign on prison conditions.

John Howell Portrait John Howell (Henley) (Con) - Hansard
2 Jul 2018, 7:05 p.m.

I share the right hon. Gentleman’s desire to get prisoners back into work. Does he agree that the changes that can be made to achieve that are actually quite small? The previous Justice Committee saw during a visit to Denmark how communal cooking by prisoners of food that they had bought was a very good marker for getting them to move on in life after prison.

David Hanson Hansard
2 Jul 2018, 7:05 p.m.

There are a number of things that we can do, and I know that the Minister is interested in how we can make the things that happen in prison relevant to the things that happen outside prison, so that skills, training and communal activities prepare prisoners for life outside in a positive way.

The Minister needs to focus on the consequences for probation, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian C. Lucas), because every indicator over the past seven years has proved difficult for the Government. The Minister needs to explain how he will turn that around, given the current estimates. Let me give just three examples. There are still 7,000 fewer prison officers today than there were eight years ago. The Government are now trying to increase the number of prison officers as a whole, but however many they increase it by, there will still be fewer officers to deal with the same number of prisoners we had eight years ago. The number of assaults on prisoners increased last year by 11%—to over 29,000. At more than 80 per day, that is the highest number of assaults since records began. The number of serious assaults on prisoners increased by 10%, which is the highest level since records began, and the number of assaults on staff increased by 23% over the past year. The number of serious assaults on staff reached 864 in 2017, which is the highest number since records began.

Those indicators are in part the result of underfunding, so it is important that the Minister explains how he will turn the prison system around, particularly with regard to prison numbers, prison officer engagement, training and employment schemes, and meeting his aspirations of having a cohort of six prisoners per officer. The budget is already down by 40%, and it will decrease still further over the next few years. The rate of self-harm—there were 44,651 incidents in 2017—is now at its highest since records began.

What is the Minister going to do to turn that situation around at a time of less resources? Eight prisons are currently in special measures. Within those cohorts—given the time available, I will not expand in great detail—we face some real challenges. He talked last week about the potential expense of Carillion’s collapse for the Ministry of Justice. We have heard about his back to basics campaign, in which he wants to increase investment and focus on the condition of cells and maintenance, but I would like to know how he will do that within the terms of the estimates.

A little over a week ago, the Justice Committee, ably chaired by the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst, published its “Transforming Rehabilitation” report. It is particularly important that in this estimates debate the Minister touches on what he will do about probation through-the-gate provision, community rehabilitation companies and transforming rehabilitation. I could spend the next hour reading the recommendations of “Transforming Rehabilitation”, which points to massive failures of contract management, massive subsidies of public money for no definitive outcomes, and massive mistakes by Minister in managing contracts. The question prompted by the estimates is: what is the Minister going to do about that?

When the Minister was questioned by the Committee last week, he teased us by saying he might reduce the number of community rehabilitation companies in the next few months and would make an announcement before the end of July. Press speculation last week said the reduction would be from 21 to 14. Current contracts for community rehabilitation companies last until 2022, and the Minister teased us with the possibility of the end of those contracts in 2020.

It does not take a genius to know that the contracts are not performing well. The Minister’s Department bunged the companies more than £400 million last August to shore them up because of failures of the contract mechanism. This is an estimates debate, so the Minister needs to explain to the House what he sees as the future of community rehabilitation companies, how he sees the funding mechanisms, whether those funding mechanisms impact on the estimates before us, and how the companies will operate in the period up to the next comprehensive spending review. He needs to set out to the Committee what he will say to the Treasury about the estimates that he and his own chief financial officer admitted last week are difficult, but are not yet cemented down for the comprehensive spending review from 2018 to 2022.

This matters because it is, as the hon. Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) indicated, about public safety. It is about preventing crime, rehabilitating offenders, reducing offending and making our society safer. This is not so much an estimates debate as a “how are we going to do it?” debate. How are we going to make the improvements the Prison Service needs? How are we going to make the necessary comprehensive improvements to CRCs? The Minister has a duty to the House to set that out now in this debate.

Alex Chalk Portrait Alex Chalk (Cheltenham) (Con) - Hansard
2 Jul 2018, 7:11 p.m.

It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Delyn (David Hanson).

Justice could not be more important and it is fundamental to what it means to be British. Why do I say that? One only has to look at Department for Education guidance on the fundamental British values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect of and tolerance for those with different faiths and beliefs. If we look further at the understanding the Department wants to promote and the values it wants to engender in young people, it states:

“An appreciation that living under the rule of law protects individual citizens and is essential for their wellbeing and safety”.

In other words, the rule of law is not just some arcane phrase beloved of lawyers; it is about concrete rights that ordinary human beings and citizens in our country are entitled to enforce.

The rule of law and the principles we hold dear represent one of our most precious exports: the common law system. Yet surely there has never been a greater gap between the importance of an issue and its political profile —not under this Government or any other Government specifically, but as a general position. Issues of the law do not tend to move the dial politically in the same way as the NHS or education. That is a really important point, because it is incumbent on us in this place to make those arguments. The truth is that respect for justice is culturally ingrained through such things as the strength of our jury system. There is a collective common sense among the British people that rails against injustice wherever they see it, whether it is in the cases of the Birmingham Six, the Guildford Four or, more recently, Liam Allan. The British people are appalled when they see injustice, yet there is a disconnect because it does not seem to enjoy the political profile that it should.

As this is an estimates debate, it is important that we consider funding. Governments must live within their means—that is absolutely right—but it is important to observe the total allocated for this budget, which we all recognise as so vital. The total annual managed expenditure of £7.36 billion for 2018-19 will be reduced in 2019-20 to £6.89 billion. To put that into context, the Treasury Red Book states total UK Government expenditure for the first of those two years as £809 billion. By my calculations, £7.36 billion out of £809 billion is less than 1%. The Department for Work and Pensions spends the equivalent of the entire Ministry of Justice budget in about 10 days. The total Department for International Development budget is about double the MOJ budget. The amount spent on aid to Syria alone—one country—of £2.3 billion is more than the entire legal aid budget. Those are sobering figures. I do not for a second doubt the Government’s sincerity when they say they want to prioritise the rule of law and access to justice, but that is none the less a startling suite of statistics. It is important that although this area does not necessarily have support within the media, it has its champions here in Parliament.