All 44 Parliamentary debates on 28th Mar 2023

Tue 28th Mar 2023
Tue 28th Mar 2023
Tue 28th Mar 2023
Tue 28th Mar 2023
Illegal Migration Bill
Commons Chamber

Committee stage: Committee of the whole House (day 2)
Tue 28th Mar 2023
Tue 28th Mar 2023
Tue 28th Mar 2023
Tue 28th Mar 2023
Tue 28th Mar 2023
Tue 28th Mar 2023
Public Order Bill
Lords Chamber

Consideration of Commons amendments
Tue 28th Mar 2023
Energy Bill [HL]
Lords Chamber

Report stage: Part 1
Tue 28th Mar 2023
Energy Bill [HL]
Lords Chamber

Report stage: Part 2

House of Commons

Tuesday 28th March 2023

(1 year, 1 month ago)

Commons Chamber
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Tuesday 28 March 2023
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock

Prayers

Tuesday 28th March 2023

(1 year, 1 month ago)

Commons Chamber
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Prayers mark the daily opening of Parliament. The occassion is used by MPs to reserve seats in the Commons Chamber with 'prayer cards'. Prayers are not televised on the official feed.

This information is provided by Parallel Parliament and does not comprise part of the offical record

[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Business Before Questions

Tuesday 28th March 2023

(1 year, 1 month ago)

Commons Chamber
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Spoliation Advisory Panel
Resolved,
That an Humble Address be presented to His Majesty, That he will be graciously pleased to give directions that there be laid before this House a Return of the Report from the Right Honourable Sir Donnell Deeny, Chairman of the Spoliation Advisory Panel, dated 28 March 2023, in respect of a painting, La Ronde Enfantine, now in the possession of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.—(Scott Mann.)

Oral Answers to Questions

Tuesday 28th March 2023

(1 year, 1 month ago)

Commons Chamber
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The Secretary of State was asked—
Andrew Western Portrait Andrew Western (Stretford and Urmston) (Lab)
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1. What steps his Department is taking to reform the criminal justice system to help tackle violence against women and girls.

Dominic Raab Portrait The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice (Dominic Raab)
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The Government are taking a zero-tolerance approach to violence against women and girls. Just this month, in response to the Wade review, we announced tougher sentences for domestic abusers who kill their partners and ex-partners.

Andrew Western Portrait Andrew Western
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It is now more than two months since His Majesty’s inspectorate of probation published its independent “Serious Further Offences” report into Jordan McSweeney, following the murder of Zara Aleena. Have the Government yet implemented the urgent actions set out in that report?

Dominic Raab Portrait Dominic Raab
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I have met Zara Aleena’s family and the chief inspector of probation to talk about those failings. We have accepted all of the recommendations. I can write to the hon. Gentleman in relation to those, because they were numerous, but we are in the process of implementing each and every one of them.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the shadow Minister.

Ellie Reeves Portrait Ellie Reeves (Lewisham West and Penge) (Lab)
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The Rape Crisis report, published yesterday, found that rape survivors are waiting 839 days for their cases to be heard in court—longer than for any other crime type. These delays are causing harm to some of the most traumatised victims. Many are dropping out of their cases altogether, while others have tried to take their own life. When will the Government fully commit to rolling out specialist rape courts in every Crown court in the country to fast-track cases, protect victims and punish rapists?

Dominic Raab Portrait Dominic Raab
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The hon. Lady raises a very important issue. As she knows, we have already rolled out specialist rape courts in Snaresbrook, London, Leeds and Newcastle. We have introduced the 24/7 rape and serious sexual violence support line, along with a range of other initiatives, including quadrupling the funding for victims since 2010. I can also tell her—because some of the data released in that report has been overtaken by more recent data—that the average number of days for adult rape from charge to case being completed has, in the past quarter, come down by 10 weeks, or 17%. There is more to do, but hopefully that will reassure her.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the Chair of the Justice Committee.

Robert Neill Portrait Sir Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con)
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The initiatives that the Government have introduced are very welcome. One of those is the pre-recorded cross-examination under section 28, but, to make that work, there has to be a proper level of remuneration for advocates on both sides to ensure that we have skilled and experienced barristers prosecuting and defending those cases. What arrangements have now been made to finalise the conditions and terms of payment for section 28 proceedings with both defence and prosecution barristers? Until we get that right, we will not get the cases through at the speed we wish.

Dominic Raab Portrait Dominic Raab
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I thank the Chair of the Select Committee for his question. We have already introduced the statutory instrument to increase that uplift for those lawyers conducting the section 28 pre-recorded evidence. It has now been rolled out nationwide and it will start to make a difference.

Bob Blackman Portrait Bob Blackman (Harrow East) (Con)
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2. What steps he is taking to help prisoners develop new skills.

Stephen Metcalfe Portrait Stephen Metcalfe (South Basildon and East Thurrock) (Con)
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17. What steps he is taking to help prisoners develop new skills.

Damian Hinds Portrait The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Damian Hinds)
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Among other things, we are renewing the prisoner education service, establishing an employability innovation fund, and ensuring that skills acquired match business need through close work with employers.

Bob Blackman Portrait Bob Blackman
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I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer. Under my Homelessness Reduction Act 2017, prison governors have a duty to ensure that people leaving prison are housed properly after they have served their sentence. It is vital that, to prevent reoffending, we ensure that prisoners get the best possible education. What extra measures is he considering to ensure that prisoners are given the skills they need to rebuild their lives after they have served their sentence?

Damian Hinds Portrait Damian Hinds
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I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the work he did, through the Homelessness Reduction Act, to support prisoners throughout our communities. He is right to identify not only the importance of skills and getting into work, but the need for direct support with accommodation. We are investing heavily in expanding transitional accommodation at the different levels. Although there is still a way to go, it is very encouraging that the proportion of prisoners being left homeless after leaving prison has reduced by 5 percentage points over the past couple of years.

Andrew Gwynne Portrait Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab)
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We all want to see more people rehabilitated from the Prison Service. The Minister will know, however, that His Majesty’s chief inspector of probation has described that service as “in survival mode” due to staffing pressures and huge workloads. What does he expect his Department to do to put that right?

Damian Hinds Portrait Damian Hinds
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In relation to the probation service, which I think the hon. Gentleman is asking about, we are investing in increasing staff numbers and ensuring that those staff have the right support, and we have seen those staff numbers grow. It is also important, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State just said, that we learn from when things go wrong or have gone wrong in the past and ensure we respond appropriately.

Stephen Metcalfe Portrait Stephen Metcalfe
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Getting prisoners with substance abuse issues into meaningful skills training first requires getting them off drugs. Can my right hon. Friend tell the House what he is doing to help prisoners and to tackle drugs in prisons?

Damian Hinds Portrait Damian Hinds
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My hon. Friend is quite right; that is a crucial part of the jigsaw, together with maintaining family ties. In a major new initiative, we are creating up to 18 new drug recovery wings so that prisoners can focus on achieving abstinence not only from illicit drugs, but from prescribed substitutes. We are also increasing the number of incentivised substance-free living units and have been investing strongly in prison security to stop drugs getting in in the first place.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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The Shannon Trust—no connection to me, by the way—has concluded that 50% of people in prison cannot read or struggle to do so. What steps are being taken to ensure that basic literacy and reading skills are taught at all prisons for all ages across the United Kingdom?

Damian Hinds Portrait Damian Hinds
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We all trust Shannon; the hon. Gentleman is quite right to draw attention to the good work of his namesake trust, which for many years has operated a very good peer model in our prisons, where prisoners help other prisoners. We also work with the trust directly on other programmes, and just last week we announced a new funding award to the Shannon Trust and one other charity to help in that important basic literacy work that he mentions.

Mary Kelly Foy Portrait Mary Kelly Foy (City of Durham) (Lab)
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3. What assessment he has made of the potential merits of bringing the delivery of all prison education into the public sector.

Damian Hinds Portrait The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Damian Hinds)
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Improving education in prisons is a top priority. The public sector, the independent sector and the voluntary sector all have an important part to play in that. Indeed, three of the four contracted core education providers currently are classified as public sector bodies.

Mary Kelly Foy Portrait Mary Kelly Foy
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We spend more than £150 million a year on a prison education system that is unfit for purpose, and much of that is extracted as profit for failing outsourced companies. Does the Minister think that is good value for money?

Damian Hinds Portrait Damian Hinds
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That is a mischaracterisation of how the education service runs in prison. There are an extraordinary number of very dedicated people working in that service, and three of the four providers, as I say, are essentially further education college providers. We can and must do better, because we know that education and the acquisition of skills help to keep people out of trouble and from returning to jail once they get out.

Barry Sheerman Portrait Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op)
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4. If he will make an estimate of the number of people under the age of 18 serving custodial sentences who were convicted under joint enterprise.

Mike Freer Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mike Freer)
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The number of young people in custody is at an historic low, with the number of under-18s in custody having fallen by 77% over the past decade. The Ministry of Justice does not, however, collate information on whether a prosecution or conviction for any crime was also one of joint enterprise. We are considering whether such data could be collected as part of the Common Platform programme.

Barry Sheerman Portrait Mr Sheerman
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The campaign group JENGbA—Joint Enterprise Not Guilty by Association—estimates that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of young people under 18 in prison under parasitic accessorial liability, a novel form of joint enterprise that was supposedly overturned in 2016. People convicted under PAL have no true route to appeal because of the high bar used by the Court of Appeal. Will the Minister consider my Criminal Appeal (Amendment) Bill, which is going through the House of Commons at the moment? It is desperately needed for those young people, who should not be in prison.

Mike Freer Portrait Mike Freer
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I am aware of the court case to which the hon. Gentleman refers, and I am always happy to engage with him on his private Member’s Bill.

Kate Osamor Portrait Kate Osamor (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op)
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5. What steps he is taking to increase the availability of legal aid.

Mike Freer Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mike Freer)
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On 30 November 2022, we published our full response to the criminal legal aid independent review and a consultation on policy proposals. We are boosting the system with up-front investments to address the most urgent concerns, including uplifts of 15% for most legal aid fee schemes. We have also launched a review of civil legal aid to identify options that inform our long-term strategy of improving the sustainability of the civil legal aid system. In March 2022, we published a detailed consultation on legal aid means testing arrangements. The consultation proposes changes that should mean that legal aid is available to 2 million more people in civil cases and 3.5 million more people in magistrates courts.

Kate Osamor Portrait Kate Osamor
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I thank the Minister for his response. My office regularly refers constituents to the local law centre for housing issues relating to disrepair. The law centre is concerned that it is largely not covered by legal aid on damages for clients. Law centres are also not recognised as exempt professional firms so they are unable to purchase after-the-event insurance, meaning that clients are exposed to costs if they lose their case. Will the Minister consider extending access to legal aid in housing cases and recognising law centres as exempt professional firms?

Mike Freer Portrait Mike Freer
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On the exemption issue, if the hon. Lady would like to write to me, I will certainly investigate that. She will be pleased to know that in the last two months we have invested an additional £10 million to boost the amount of legal aid available on housing matters.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the shadow Minister.

Afzal Khan Portrait Afzal Khan (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab)
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Legal aid is the backbone of our criminal justice system, and it is running on empty. In England and Wales, 54 constituencies have no legal aid providers at all, and 80% of the population do not have access to welfare legal aid providers in their local authority. The current legal aid system is not just a postcode lottery but a regional lottery. The Government have kicked the civil legal aid review into the long grass and are still not following Bellamy’s recommendations. When will the Lord Chancellor meet Bellamy’s recommendations in full?

Mike Freer Portrait Mike Freer
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I do not recognise spending more than £2 billion a year as “running on empty”. Spending an extra £4 million on section 28 fees, an extra £10 million on housing legal aid, an extra £5.6 million on special guardianship legal aid, and an extra £3.3 million on special and wasted preparation legal aid is not “running on empty”. In terms of representation across the UK, the Legal Aid Agency regularly ensures that all areas of the UK are covered by duty solicitors and legal aid firms.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the SNP spokesperson.

Stuart C McDonald Portrait Stuart C. McDonald (Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East) (SNP)
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During yesterday’s debate on the Illegal Migration Bill, I sought clarity on how people impacted by the Bill will be able to secure access to legal advice and legal aid. Those people—be they an Afghan fighter pilot or an LGBT person who has fled Uganda—will have just eight days to make an application and seven days to appeal against removal on the grounds of serious and irreversible harm, and all that will happen while they are in immigration detention. So let me try again: how will access to legal advice be secured for such people, and will legal aid be available to them?

Mike Freer Portrait Mike Freer
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If I may, as it is such a technical issue, I will happily meet the hon. Gentleman or write with a detailed answer.

Daniel Kawczynski Portrait Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con)
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6. What steps he is taking to increase support for families within the family court system.

Caroline Ansell Portrait Caroline Ansell (Eastbourne) (Con)
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8. What steps he is taking to increase support for families within the family court system.

Mike Freer Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mike Freer)
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Drawn-out court proceedings can have a damaging impact on parents and children. We have published a consultation on proposals for a funded mandatory mediation and co-parenting programme before court to enable more families to resolve disputes out of court. We have also invested a further £15 million in the family mediation voucher scheme, which will help about 28,000 more separating families over the next two years. By freeing up stretched court resources, those changes will help families whose cases need to be heard by a court, such as those involved in domestic abuse.

Daniel Kawczynski Portrait Daniel Kawczynski
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Does my hon. Friend agree that this Government have taken the necessary steps to prevent perpetrators of domestic violence from being able to question their victims in family court proceedings, and that the family court should never again be a place where victims can be subjected to further abuse from their perpetrators?

Mike Freer Portrait Mike Freer
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My hon. Friend raises a very important point. In July 2022, a landmark Domestic Abuse Act 2021 measure came into force, prohibiting domestic abuse perpetrators and victims from cross-examining each other in person during certain family and civil proceedings. Family and civil courts can now engage a court-funded qualified legal representative to conduct cross-examinations in these cases. That scheme is very popular, and hundreds of qualified legal representatives have registered for it. This will ensure that those people in court are protected from such cross-examination.

Caroline Ansell Portrait Caroline Ansell
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In one of my last advice surgeries, a parent described to me their toxic experience of family court. The Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service has highlighted the harm posed to children from drawn-out court proceedings. What further measures is the Minister taking to enhance and promote mediation where appropriate, so that the impact of separation is not exacerbated by legal proceedings?

Mike Freer Portrait Mike Freer
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My hon. Friend raises a very important and sensitive issue. The Government are reviewing all aspects of family law, particularly in terms of how to ensure that families stay out of court. The extra £15 million for mediation vouchers will help to keep people out of that adversarial situation. It is also about the use of language, to ensure that children are not scarred by the adversarial process. A wraparound process that is family-friendly, with mediation, should address the concerns she has raised.

Sarah Green Portrait Sarah Green (Chesham and Amersham) (LD)
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Over three years, one of my constituents was dragged back to the family court by their ex-partner 25 times. Despite having the bravery to leave an abusive relationship, they faced further trauma as a result of an ex-partner who was able to use the family court system to further control and manipulate them and their child. What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that the family courts cannot be abused in this way?

Mike Freer Portrait Mike Freer
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The hon. Lady raises a point that has been raised before. The Department is reviewing how we can ensure that people caught up in the family court system are protected from such abuse.

Andy Slaughter Portrait Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab)
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The best support that families could get is representation, but the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 virtually abolished private law family legal aid. Saturday will be the 10th anniversary of that Act coming into effect, and since then, legal aid expenditure has been cut by a third, advice is given in three quarters of a million fewer cases and applications for full legal aid have halved, as has the number of providers. In the light of that, does the Minister think that LASPO has been good or bad for access to justice?

Mike Freer Portrait Mike Freer
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What I can tell the hon. Gentleman is that we have spent over £813 million on civil legal aid. In fact, the means-testing review is expected to widen civil legal aid availability to an extra 2 million people, so I do not accept the premise that we are failing families or the civil legal aid system, because of the investment we are making.

Priti Patel Portrait Priti Patel (Witham) (Con)
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7. If he will make an assessment of the adequacy of the performance of HM Courts and Tribunals Service’s probate service in the last 12 months.

Mike Freer Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mike Freer)
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Despite the increased volume of applications received during and after the covid-19 pandemic, the average length of time taken for a grant of probate once all required documents are received has been maintained at between four and seven weeks, with the average response being almost one week faster in the third quarter of 2022 than the yearly average for 2020 and 2021.

Priti Patel Portrait Priti Patel
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A number of my constituents have been experiencing significant delays in their probate applications—some have been waiting for over 10 weeks—and have had difficulties in accessing staff through the contact centre and the hotline. What message does the Minister have for my constituents who are stuck waiting for answers, and what is he doing to improve the application process? At the end of the day, bereaved families are having to deal with the estates of deceased relatives, and this is a deeply painful time for so many constituents up and down the country.

Mike Freer Portrait Mike Freer
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My right hon. Friend raises a case that I have taken some time to unpick. I can reassure her that wait times for calls to the helpline have dropped from an hour to between five and 10 minutes. In terms of the number of what are called stops, when we have to ask for additional information, we are looking at why the form causes that, to see whether it is user-friendly. We are also recruiting additional caseworkers to ensure that complex cases are speeded through the system.

Valerie Vaz Portrait Valerie Vaz (Walsall South) (Lab)
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The probate service was part of the reform programme, which has now been paused following a National Audit Office report, so could the Minister say who is responsible for this shambolic waste of public money, and what the next steps are?

Mike Freer Portrait Mike Freer
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I have to say to the right hon. Lady that that is an interesting take on a pause. I do not think that taking extra time to ensure that a new system beds down correctly and listening to the concerns of the staff, which many Opposition Members have been asking for for many weeks, is shambolic. Many of the issues in the probate system are caused by the sheer volume of cases coming in with the increased death rate, but they are also about ensuring that we have enough staff on site with the right skills. That is why we are recruiting people to deal with the volume of cases.

Laurence Robertson Portrait Mr Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con)
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9. If he will take steps to ensure that legal aid is used only for cases which relate to individual cases; and if he will make a statement.

Mike Freer Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mike Freer)
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Legal aid is granted only to individuals. There are specific regulations that set out the position relating to multi-party applications. Following changes made in 2012, legal aid may be granted to participants in MPAs only where each individual has a cause of action and will directly benefit from proceedings. This is a way of dealing with a collection of cases more efficiently by identifying a lead case. In addition, under the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, any judicial review must have the potential to produce a benefit for the individual applicant, a member of their family, or the environment.

Laurence Robertson Portrait Mr Robertson
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I thank the Minister for that response and I welcome the changes that have been made, but it still seems to be the case that sometimes, legal aid or connected taxpayers’ money can be used to challenge decisions that have been democratically arrived at and would, in fact, benefit communities.

Mike Freer Portrait Mike Freer
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I am aware of the concern that Members have about the use of legal aid in such cases, but I can reassure my hon. Friend that the Legal Aid Agency reviews all cases to ensure that the funding decisions are necessary before they are agreed.

Gregory Campbell Portrait Mr Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP)
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Does the Minister agree that legal aid availability is a very important part of the justice system, but it is equally important that the wider community becomes aware of the cost of repeated cases of legal aid for the same application, so that there is full transparency among the wider public about what they are paying for?

Mike Freer Portrait Mike Freer
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The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. The Legal Aid Agency will always monitor cases where we get repeat applications for funding to ensure that any application is warranted before being agreed.

Kerry McCarthy Portrait Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab)
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10. What steps he is taking to reduce probation officer case loads.

Damian Hinds Portrait The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Damian Hinds)
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We have injected extra funding of more than £155 million a year to deliver more robust supervision, recruit thousands more staff, and reduce case loads to support the vital work of the probation service in keeping the public safe.

Kerry McCarthy Portrait Kerry McCarthy
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I thank the Minister for that response, but it does not really accord with what I have been told by probation officers, which is that they are overworked, underpaid and feel undervalued, and that the service is haemorrhaging staff. There are also an awful lot of people off sick. What impact does he think that will have on efforts to make sure that offenders do not go on to reoffend, and that we do not have a crime wave on our streets because we are simply not putting the resources into the probation service that could help prevent that?

Damian Hinds Portrait Damian Hinds
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I join the hon. Lady in paying tribute to the men and women who work in the probation service for the absolutely vital work that they do tirelessly. It is very important that we make sure we have the right levels of staffing; I can report to her that in calendar year 2022, the number of staff in post rose significantly, from 17,400 to 18,600. In her own area of the south-west, covering Bristol, we had 210 joiners for the year, but it is obviously very important that as those people come through, we carry on having the pipeline of talent coming in. It is also very important that we are investing suitably in senior probation officers for their oversight, which we are doing.

Luke Evans Portrait Dr Luke Evans (Bosworth) (Con)
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12. What recent progress his Department has made on taking forward the proposals for reform in its root-and-branch review of the parole system.

Adam Afriyie Portrait Adam Afriyie (Windsor) (Con)
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16. What recent progress he has made on introducing ministerial oversight of parole board decisions to release high-risk offenders back into the community before the end of their sentence.

Dominic Raab Portrait The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice (Dominic Raab)
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We will shortly be bringing forward legislation to implement key measures in the root-and-branch review to ensure that public protection is the sole criterion and focus for parole decision making.

Luke Evans Portrait Dr Evans
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I thank the Secretary of State for his answer. My concerns on this point come alongside those of my neighbour and hon. Friend the Member for South Leicestershire (Alberto Costa), about Colin Pitchfork, the double child murderer and rapist who was released on parole, reoffended and rearrested. I do not expect the Secretary of State to comment on that specific case, but how does he balance the need to avoid political interference with raising public legitimate concern?

Dominic Raab Portrait Dominic Raab
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I thank my hon. Friend, and my hon. Friend the Member for South Leicestershire (Alberto Costa), who have campaigned tirelessly for parole reform. Our constituents and members of the public already think that we, as Ministers and as Members of this House, are responsible for the justice system. What most frustrates them is when we duck these issues, or if matters are delegated and we do not have any control. I can tell my hon. Friend that we will overhaul the criteria so that public protection is the exclusive focus of decision making. We are already, as I am keen to do, recruiting more parole board members with law enforcement experience, because they have a different, more risk-averse approach to public protection. We will be introducing a ministerial check over the most serious offenders, including murderers, rapists, terrorist offenders and child killers. I hope that will have the support of those on the Opposition Benches.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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Adam Afriyie is not here.

Simon Fell Portrait Simon Fell (Barrow and Furness) (Con)
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13. What assessment he has made of the impact of social media on live court cases.

Mike Freer Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mike Freer)
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We have taken steps to mitigate the risk that social media poses to court cases following a call for evidence in 2019. Arrangements are in place with social media companies to ensure that relevant material is flagged and removed, and we are working to improve the enforcement of anonymity laws. Courts will take appropriate action against those who misuse social media, and they may be found in contempt of court, resulting in a fine and up to two years in prison.

Simon Fell Portrait Simon Fell
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In May 2020, just as we entered the first lockdown, a young woman from my constituency posted false allegations on Facebook claiming that she was the victim of an Asian grooming gang, and that she had been raped, trafficked and beaten. The images accompanying that post were absolutely horrific. As the House might imagine, the post went global and it went viral, and in the lockdown world, it was all people were talking about. Hundreds of thousands of messages were being shared on Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and others. The environment made it increasingly difficult for the police to do their job gathering evidence, and it even risked the viability of a trial going ahead at all. Traditional media carry reporting restrictions for such cases. Will the Minister agree to meet me to discuss whether we can look at applying the same conditions to social media channels?

Mike Freer Portrait Mike Freer
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I am more than happy to meet my hon. Friend. I can reassure him that contempt of court and reporting restrictions apply to social media as well as mainstream media. We continually look at what more we can do to strengthen the law in this area, and that is why we have asked the Law Commission to consider the issue as part of a wide-ranging review of the law on contempt of court. Two new offences in the Online Safety Bill will criminalise the type of behaviour we have seen in the Eleanor Williams case. The false communications offence will criminalise communications where a person sends information that they know to be false with the intention of causing harm. As I say, I am more than happy to meet my hon. Friend.

Andrew Bridgen Portrait Andrew Bridgen (North West Leicestershire) (Ind)
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14. What progress he has made on tackling the backlog of court cases.

Mike Freer Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mike Freer)
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The outstanding case load has reduced across the UK. I do not have specific numbers for my hon. Friend’s constituency, as we do not calculate them by constituency. We are taking action across the criminal justice system to bring backlogs down and improve waiting times for those who use our courts.

Andrew Bridgen Portrait Andrew Bridgen
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My hon. Friend will be aware of the saying that justice delayed is justice denied. What steps is he taking to ensure that the courts sit for as long as possible to try to get the backlog down?

Mike Freer Portrait Mike Freer
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I can reassure my hon. Friend that we have removed the limit on sitting days in the Crown court for the second financial year in a row, and that means that courts will continue to work at full capacity. We are also continuing with the use of 24 Nightingale courtrooms into the 2023-24 financial year, and are recruiting 1,000 new members of the judiciary to ensure that we get the backlog under control.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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You could always reopen the court at Chorley to help.

Mike Amesbury Portrait Mike Amesbury (Weaver Vale) (Lab)
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Victims of crime are having to wait up to four and a half years for their day in court. Since 2010, 50% of magistrates courts have been closed. Do the Secretary of State and the Minister believe that is a coincidence?

Mike Freer Portrait Mike Freer
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In terms of the efficiency of the courts estate, I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that I am less hung up about the availability of buildings in every town and city and more hung up about whether we have sitting days and judges to ensure that our criminal justice system is swift and fair.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the shadow Minister.

Alex Cunningham Portrait Alex Cunningham (Stockton North) (Lab)
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The Minister would have us believe that all was well and great progress was being made in tackling the courts backlog. Then we got the damning National Audit Office report into the reform programme. The catalogue of problems is too extensive to detail here, from the ailing common platform to the hundreds of failing processes within the 46 projects yet to operate in the way they were intended. I therefore pose the same questions as the NAO: when will Ministers be able to quantify the now decreasing benefits of the programme and demonstrate that it has improved access to justice?

Mike Freer Portrait Mike Freer
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I appreciate that the shadow Minister has a somewhat luddite approach to implementing new systems. I also say to him that the Opposition have been calling for us to listen to the staff using the common platform, which is what we have done. In fact, when I go out and about and talk to courts staff, including listing clerks and clerks in magistrates courts, the benefits of the common platform are understood, but the implementation does need some work, which is why we are pausing it. However, the alternative is to return to legacy systems, which were on the verge of collapse and for which support will be withdrawn in the near future. If that is his future, he is welcome to it.

James Gray Portrait James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con)
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15. What plans his Department has to consult on the options for reform in its response to the domestic homicide sentencing review.

Edward Argar Portrait The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Edward Argar)
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I am very grateful to Clare Wade KC for her work on this review, and I would also like to pay tribute to Carole Gould and Julie Devey for their tireless campaigning following the tragic murders of their daughters Ellie Gould and Poppy Devey Waterhouse, in whose names they campaign.

As my hon. Friend will be aware, the Deputy Prime Minister published the domestic homicide sentencing review on 17 March. We will launch a public consultation on increasing the starting point to 25 years for murders preceded by controlling or coercive behaviour. We have also announced other key measures to help ensure that sentencing better reflects the seriousness of these horrific crimes, so that this important legislation can be introduced as swiftly as possible.

James Gray Portrait James Gray
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My constituent Carole Gould broadly welcomes the 17 proposals in the Wade report. Indeed, she welcomes the fact that we have had the Wade report at all. However, we bitterly regret the fact that only two years have been added for overkill, coercive behaviour and strangulation. It should be much higher than that: it should be 25 years minimum. We are also very disappointed that, of the 17 proposals Ms Wade brought forward, only three have so far been taken up by the Government. When will the Minister bring forward a consultation on the remaining 14, and how many of the remaining 14, which Ms Wade believes should form one package, will be accepted by the Government?

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
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I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I am very much aware of the calls of Julie and Carole in this respect, and of their campaigns. I had the privilege of meeting them virtually recently, and I look forward to seeing them in person in due course. I am also aware of his dedicated campaigning on these issues in his role as a constituency MP.

Reflecting the complexity of the law in this area, our full response will be published this summer, providing an important opportunity to engage stakeholders and hon. Members as we continue to consider the remaining recommendations. We published the review because my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister felt it was very important that it was out there and people could contribute to that debate. As my hon. Friend highlights, we have accepted three recommendations and rejected one, and the other 13 will be considered very carefully in the light of representations made to us in the coming months.

Alexander Stafford Portrait Alexander Stafford (Rother Valley) (Con)
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18. What steps his Department is taking through the criminal justice system to deter small boat crossings of the English channel.

Dominic Raab Portrait The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice (Dominic Raab)
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Under the Nationalities and Borders Act 2022, 162 people, including 34 small boat pilots, have been convicted, resulting in sentences totalling 108 years—legislation, of course, opposed by the Labour party.

Alexander Stafford Portrait Alexander Stafford
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I thank the Secretary of State for the answer, but is my right hon. Friend aware of the concerns of many of my constituents that illegal immigrants and their lefty London lawyers are seen to game the court system by relying on its sluggishness so that they can remain here indefinitely? [Interruption.] What steps is he taking to boost capacity in the upper and first tier-tribunals ahead of the Illegal Migration Bill coming into force?

Dominic Raab Portrait Dominic Raab
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I thank my hon. Friend, who has woken up the shadow Front Bench team from their slumbers with that one. He is absolutely right. As part of the work I am doing with the Home Secretary, we are increasing the number of judges we are recruiting for the immigration and asylum chamber. That means 72 more judges for the first-tier tribunal and 50 more for the upper tribunal. We want appeals decided swiftly and decisively, so that we can clear the court system and also make sure we remove those who are not entitled to come here.

Christine Jardine Portrait Christine Jardine (Edinburgh West) (LD)
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19. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on tackling domestic abuse.

Edward Argar Portrait The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Edward Argar)
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My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister and I have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues about tackling domestic abuse and how we can build on the progress already made. The Government have made good progress on our implementation of the Domestic Abuse Act 2021, and the majority of measures are now in force. In February of this year, we announced additional measures to further tackle domestic abuse, including recording the most harmful domestic abuse offenders on the sex offenders register and classifying violence against women and girls as a national threat for policing for the first time. Just this month, we have announced tougher sentences for domestic abusers who kill their partners or ex-partners.

Christine Jardine Portrait Christine Jardine
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I thank the Minister for his answer, but several areas were not addressed in the Domestic Abuse Act 2021, and many of us believe that they need to be covered in the forthcoming victims Bill. Specifically, they relate to improving the support that survivors receive. It is now a year since the publication of the draft Victims Bill, and we are still waiting for its First Reading. Will the Minister update the House on what the timetable is likely to be, and whether, once introduced, it will address areas such as the lack of specialist services for minority groups, the lack of mental health support, and the gaps in provision for children?

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
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As ever, I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question and the tone in which she put it. She will have seen the draft Victims Bill, and our response to the prelegislative scrutiny report by the Justice Committee. On support, she will be aware that we have more than quadrupled the funding for victims of crime, up from £41 million in 2009-10. As the Minister who wrote the victims strategy when I was last in this post in 2018-19, like her I very much look forward to the victims Bill. I hope she will not have long to wait, and I look forward to it being brought forward in due course. When it is, I look forward to working constructively with her as it passes through this House and the other place.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the shadow Minister.

Anna McMorrin Portrait Anna McMorrin (Cardiff North) (Lab)
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Since questions began at 11.30 am today, 12 women across the country will have been raped. It is likely that not a single one of them will see their rapist charged. Those women have no Victims’ Commissioner and no victims Bill to protect them. Have not women suffered enough? How long will victims have to wait until they are put first in this broken justice system?

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
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Under this Government victims are always put first. The hon. Lady raised two or three points, and she will be aware that reports and charges of rape, and receipts in the Crown court, have been going up. There is more to do in that space—we have been clear about that—but we have continued to drive progress, not least through the Operation Soteria approach that we have piloted in a number of areas. She mentioned the appointment of a Victims’ Commissioner, and my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister has been clear that we are in the process of recruiting for that role. I am sure she would wish us to follow due process—those on the Labour Front Bench have called for that on a number of topics—and that is exactly what we are doing. I urge her to be patient with respect to the victims Bill, and I hope she will shortly be satisfied on that score.

Neil Hudson Portrait Dr Neil Hudson (Penrith and The Border) (Con)
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T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities.

Dominic Raab Portrait The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice (Dominic Raab)
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Since the last Justice questions I hosted a conference of Justice Ministers and representatives from around the world—more than 40 countries—and we agreed a package of financial support and technical assistance to help the International Criminal Court, in particular with the indictment in relation to alleged war crimes in Ukraine. We have also published the independent domestic homicide sentencing review, announcing new statutory aggravating factors, to increase sentences for those horrific crimes.

Neil Hudson Portrait Dr Hudson
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Although we know that vaping and e-cigarette products can reduce the harms of tobacco smoking in adults, those products are not risk free and there is an alarming popularity of vaping among under-18s, and even among primary-age children. There are concerning reports of schoolchildren becoming addicted to those products, disrupting their sleep patterns, and leaving lessons and even exams to vape. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that the Government are taking action to prevent the promotion and illegal sale of vapes to under-18s, and prosecute those who break the law in that regard?

Dominic Raab Portrait Dominic Raab
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As my hon. Friend will know, vapes can only legally be sold to those over 18 in this country. We limit nicotine content and refill bottle and tank sizes, and there are also restrictions on labelling and advertising. When there is evidence of any breaches, we expect and I know that law enforcement authorities take that seriously. More generally, given the age group we are talking about, the Department of Health and Social Care is exploring a range of new measures, particularly about addressing youth vaping, and preventing and spreading awareness of the harms.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the shadow Secretary of State.

Steve Reed Portrait Steve Reed (Croydon North) (Lab/Co-op)
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Last December, I announced Labour’s plan to crack down on antisocial behaviour by forcing fly-tippers to join clean-up squads, and giving victims a voice in choosing the punishments of offenders right across the country. When the Prime Minister copied our policies, why did he shrink them down to just a handful of pilots, leaving most of the country with nothing?

Dominic Raab Portrait Dominic Raab
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Labour does not have a plan. We are the ones delivering. [Interruption.] I say to the shadow Justice Secretary that actions speak louder than words. Labour Members voted against extra money for police recruitment and they voted against tougher sentences. The Mayor of London wants to decriminalise cannabis. The hon. Gentleman says he agrees with that. The British people would have to be smoking it themselves to vote for them on law enforcement.

Steve Reed Portrait Steve Reed
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If the right hon. Gentleman thinks the Government are doing such a fantastic job on antisocial behaviour, perhaps he could explain this. Since 2014, according to his own Department, offenders who were given community sentences have dodged over 16 million hours of unpaid work that they were sentenced to carry out but never made to do—16 million hours. Why?

Dominic Raab Portrait Dominic Raab
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Actually, we toughened up community sentences, with community payback and a massive expansion in the number of hours. The use of electronic monitoring has meant that we can be far more secure and crack down harder when conditions are not met. If the hon. Gentleman wants to talk about crime, he can explain this: since 2010, crime has come down. It has more than halved, excluding fraud and computer misuse. Reoffending is lower than under Labour by 7%. We have also seen a massive reduction in the number of prison absconds. He talks a good game; we deliver.

Kelly Tolhurst Portrait Kelly Tolhurst (Rochester and Strood) (Con)
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T2. In 2015, my constituent’s brother was brutally and senselessly murdered. The perpetrators were convicted and sent to prison. One remains in prison serving a life sentence. The family were devastated to find out that he had been moved to Rochester prison, less than three miles from where the family and extended family live and work, and close to the brother’s grave. This is causing the family great distress, as an exclusion order was placed on the other perpetrator who is now on parole. Will my right hon. Friend meet me and the family to discuss the impact it is having and the distress it is causing to a local grieving family?

Damian Hinds Portrait The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Damian Hinds)
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I thank my right hon. Friend. All our sympathies are with her constituents and the family. I will, of course, be very happy to meet her.

Stuart C McDonald Portrait Stuart C. McDonald (Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East) (SNP)
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The Casey report reminds us that we must be alive to racism not only in the police, but in the whole justice system. Will Ministers engage with and act on a significant report by Manchester University and a Crown court judge, which found that racial bias plays a significant role in the justice system, including discrimination by judges? The report made a series of constructive suggestions to address this issue.

Dominic Raab Portrait Dominic Raab
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I will certainly take a look at the Manchester academic report the hon. Gentleman refers to. I know, through my work with His Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service and the senior judiciary, that they are very mindful of the issue he raises. It is important. Equally, we need to ensure that we are rigorous and colourblind to all crimes, and ensure that the rule of law applies across all communities. That is the best way to make sure we strengthen and reinforce public confidence in the justice system.

Theresa Villiers Portrait Theresa Villiers (Chipping Barnet) (Con)
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T8. Antisocial behaviour is a source of huge frustration, irritation and inconvenience for many of our constituents so I welcome Government action, but I have to say that we have heard announcements like this before. Will the Secretary of State ensure that the justice system’s response on antisocial behaviour becomes more effective, so that this week’s announcement can make a real difference to people’s lives?

Dominic Raab Portrait Dominic Raab
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My right hon. Friend is absolutely right and that is the focus of what the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister announced. For example, in the initial 10 police and crime commissioner areas, the ambition is for offenders to be doing reparatory work—for example, litter picking or cleaning up graffiti—in their communities within 48 hours of an offence. The powers to allow the police to drug test for a wider range of drugs, including methamphetamine, will give communities a sense of reassurance that action is being taken.

Andy Slaughter Portrait Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith)  (Lab)
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T3.   Last week, a supervising officer at HMP Wormwood Scrubs was brutally attacked a matter of yards from the prison entrance. The Prison Officers Association tells me—the right hon. Member for Rochester and Strood (Kelly Tolhurst) will be concerned about this—that last week an officer leaving Rochester Prison was threatened by an ex-prisoner. He was told he would be shot and his house burnt down. I am sure the Minister will join me in wishing a speedy recovery to the officer who was hurt, but we need more than that. What is the Ministry of Justice doing to ensure that prison officers, who have a difficult job, are safe coming and going from work?

Damian Hinds Portrait Damian Hinds
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I echo the hon. Gentleman’s good wishes for the victim. He is absolutely right about the importance of the safety and security for our prison officers. Things such as the rolling out of body-worn video cameras are an important part of that, along with the sensible use of PAVA spray, which I know the POA wants.

Desmond Swayne Portrait Sir Desmond Swayne (New Forest West) (Con)
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Will the Minister end the nonsense of community punishments discharged by working from home?

Damian Hinds Portrait Damian Hinds
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I am not sure that I can respond in quite the same style as my right hon. Friend. During the pandemic, being able to do certain tasks remotely or from home was a way of carrying on with unpaid work. But in general, we expect people to turn up and do that work, usually, in a group setting.

Debbie Abrahams Portrait Debbie  Abrahams  (Oldham East and Saddleworth) (Lab)
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T4.   In January I told the Justice Secretary about my constituent, who was a victim of historical child sexual exploitation, having her trial postponed three times since 2019. She is still waiting. I also asked him if he would tell me what proportion of historical CSE cases were delayed by up to four years, and I am still waiting for an answer. Will he please answer me now?

Dominic Raab Portrait Dominic Raab
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The hon. Lady raises a very serious issue. Particularly complex cases have been delayed because of the pandemic, the backlogs and the Criminal Bar Association strike. I am happy to write to her about that, and I apologise for not having done so already. In addition, if she would like to meet the victims Minister, he will be happy to talk her through the issues.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call Adam Afriyie.

Adam Afriyie Portrait Adam Afriyie (Windsor) (Con)
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Thank you for your generosity in allowing me to ask this question, Mr Speaker. My constituent Joanna Brown, a wife, mother of two children and daughter of loving parents, was brutally murdered in my constituency back in 2010. Her husband was convicted of the murder and was sentenced to 24 years. Sadly, it seems that he will be let out on licence in November. May I urge the Justice Secretary to ask the parole board to question whether such offenders should come out of prison?

Dominic Raab Portrait Dominic Raab
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My hon. Friend raises a terrible and tragic case. He knows that I recently met Joanna’s mother, Diana Parkes, and Joanna’s closest friend Hetti Barkworth-Nanton, who are co-founders of the Joanna Simpson Foundation. They have shown inspirational courage through their grief. I assured them, and I am happy to assure the House, that I will give Mr Brown’s case my closest personal attention. There will be maximum rigour in assessing risk to determine whether to use the new power given to me by the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022. I am happy to arrange for my hon. Friend to meet the relevant Minister if that is useful.

Alan Brown Portrait Alan Brown (Kilmarnock and Loudoun) (SNP)
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T5. Rather than the Tory bluster on article 8 of the European convention on human rights, does the Secretary of State acknowledge the findings of the Joint Committee on Human Rights that the UK actually has tight restrictions on article 8 rights in deportation cases, often requiring the need to prove very compelling circumstances?

Dominic Raab Portrait Dominic Raab
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I am afraid that I do not, but I respect the Committee. There has been pretty rampant abuse of the Human Rights Act 1998 when it comes to deporting foreign national offenders. That is what our Bill of Rights will cure.

David Davis Portrait Mr David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden) (Con)
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The recent investigation into lawfare by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and The Sunday Times revealed how witnesses can be paid vast sums of money—up to £1 million—to appear in British courts. That is illegal in America. Does the Government agree that the payment of such a huge amount of money has the potential to sway witnesses and should be outlawed?

Dominic Raab Portrait Dominic Raab
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I thank my right hon. Friend for bring that to my attention. It sounds very serious and capable of having a negative and pejorative influence on proceedings. If he writes to me or—even better—comes to see me, I will be happy to look into it further.

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock (Edinburgh North and Leith) (SNP)
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T6. The Joint Committee on Human Rights concluded that the UK Government should not proceed with the Secretary of State’s proposed British Bill of Rights, saying:“it weakens rights protections, it undermines the universality of rights, it shows disregard for our international legal obligations”. I realise that his Government show little regard for international legal obligations generally, but what is his response to the JCHR’s recommendations?

Dominic Raab Portrait Dominic Raab
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We showed only last week, when we brought together more than 40 countries to give effect to the International Criminal Court mandate to investigate and prosecute war crimes in Ukraine, how we are leading the charge and upholding the international rule of law. That is not helped, however, by abuses of the system, particularly, as suggested by her colleague the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown), foreign national offenders using elastic interpretations of human rights to frustrate a deportation order. That is the ill that we will cure in addition to strengthening quintessential UK rights, such as freedom of speech.

Robert Neill Portrait Sir Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con)
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Last year, the Government rightly accepted the Bellamy review’s recommendations on criminal legal aid, one of which was the establishment of an independent advisory board. When will the Government publish the board’s membership and detailed terms of reference?

Dominic Raab Portrait Dominic Raab
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I thank the Chair of the Justice Committee. They will be published very shortly.

Geraint Davies Portrait Geraint Davies (Swansea West) (Lab/Co-op)
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T7. Only one in 50 rape cases gets to court, and the Secretary of State has already confirmed that it can take over two years to get a prosecution, but what is he doing about rapes following needle or drink spiking? Is he working with clubs on surveillance, scanning and testing? Has he written to the police so that people do not say, “You’re drunk, love”? Has he any idea how many convictions have followed cases of women being raped after being spiked, including by needles?

Dominic Raab Portrait Dominic Raab
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I wholeheartedly agree with the hon. Gentleman that this is a serious new category of threat to women. The forensic capabilities are there, and the practice is clearly already illegal, so it is just a question of gathering the evidence to bring cases to court. Police referrals, CPS charges and Crown court receipts in adult rape cases are all up by around 100%.

Stephen Metcalfe Portrait Stephen Metcalfe (South Basildon and East Thurrock) (Con)
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As my right hon. Friend will know, my private Member’s Bill reforming the process of creating lasting power of attorney passed through this place two weeks ago and is now in the other place. Assuming all goes well, when does he expect it to receive Royal Assent?

Mike Freer Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mike Freer)
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While I cannot determine the date of Royal Assent, I reassure my hon. Friend that once the Bill passes through the other House, we would expect it to complete its passage here before the end of the Session.

Taiwo Owatemi Portrait Taiwo Owatemi (Coventry North West) (Lab)
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Too many families are being failed by our broken courts system, including my constituents. With poor handling of domestic abuse allegations, the disregarding of children’s voices, and an obsessive pro-contact culture that puts unfit parents’ demands ahead of the children’s best interests, we need urgent reform. What steps is the Justice Secretary taking to protect vulnerable children and ensure justice for victims?

Dominic Raab Portrait Dominic Raab
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I take this matter very seriously. Broadly speaking on the family courts, which I think is the crux of the hon. Lady’s question, of course there is a need for safeguarding in getting domestic abuse cases to court—around 55% of cases—but the best way to ensure that they are dealt with effectively is to ensure that the other 45% of cases go through mediation and do not double-dip their way into the courts system.

Janet Daby Portrait Janet Daby (Lewisham East) (Lab)
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The concordat on children in custody provides a protocol for the transfer of children out of custody and into local authority accommodation, yet many police forces and local authorities have not signed up to it and too many children are being detained in custody, even after being charged. Why is that the case, and what is the Minister going to do to address it?

Dominic Raab Portrait Dominic Raab
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Huge efforts have been made to try to ensure, where possible, that we divert young people from the criminal justice system. The hon. Lady should know that the number of children in custody has fallen by 68% in the past decade. At the end of January this year, 438 children were in custody—down from 1,349 in January 2013—but we are also considering other measures, such as secure schools, to ensure that we can deal with all such cases appropriately.

Barry Sheerman Portrait Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op)
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Has the Secretary of State seen “The Gold”, the gripping but disturbing BBC series about the Brink’s-Mat robbery? If he has, does he feel that justice has been served? Is there any more justice to come?

Dominic Raab Portrait Dominic Raab
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I have to say that I have not seen it, but now that “Love Island” is over I shall transition seamlessly to the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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Has the Minister made an assessment of the number of wills and estates that are disputed over assets each year in the United Kingdom? What discussions has he had with the devolved Assemblies about the timescales for solving such issues?

Mike Freer Portrait Mike Freer
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I am not aware of any particular statistics on the number of wills that are contested, but I will write to the hon. Gentleman and ensure that we liaise with the devolved Assemblies.

Strip Searching of Children

Tuesday 28th March 2023

(1 year, 1 month ago)

Commons Chamber
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Urgent Questions are proposed each morning by backbench MPs, and up to two may be selected each day by the Speaker. Chosen Urgent Questions are announced 30 minutes before Parliament sits each day.

Each Urgent Question requires a Government Minister to give a response on the debate topic.

This information is provided by Parallel Parliament and does not comprise part of the offical record

12:30
Munira Wilson Portrait Munira Wilson (Twickenham) (LD)
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(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if she will make a statement on the strip searching of children.

Sarah Dines Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Miss Sarah Dines)
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I am grateful to the hon. Lady for this important question. I also offer my thanks to the Children’s Commissioner for her report: it raises a number of concerns, which we take extremely seriously. The Government are, of course, considering the findings fully, and we expect the police to do so too. This is an important and emotive topic and, as with all areas of policing, it is right that we shine a light on practices and policies to understand where improvements can be made—and they invariably can.

Strip search is one of the most intrusive powers available to the police. No one should be strip searched on the basis of their race or ethnicity. Any use of strip search should be carried out in accordance with the law and with full regard for the welfare and dignity of the individual who is being searched, particularly if that individual is a child. If police judge it operationally necessary to strip search a child, they must do so in the presence of the child’s appropriate adult unless there is an urgent risk of serious harm or the child specifically requests otherwise and the appropriate adult agrees.

As the House is aware, it is the role of the Independent Office for Police Conduct to investigate serious matters involving the police. As one would expect, the IOPC is currently investigating cases of children being strip searched, including the case of Child Q. As part of those investigations, it will review existing legislation, guidance and policies. It is therefore only right that we await the IOPC’s findings in relation to Child Q so that any resulting actions and lessons can be applied with joined-up thinking across the law enforcement system.

It is for the police to perform their critical functions effectively. However, for them to do so, public confidence is vital. Our model of policing, as we all agree, depends on that consent. That is why we have made it a priority to ensure that forces meet the highest possible standards. Where improvements are needed, I will be unapologetic, as will the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary, in demanding that changes are made.

Munira Wilson Portrait Munira Wilson
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Thank you for granting this urgent question, Mr Speaker. I am disappointed not to see either the Home Secretary or the Minister for Crime, Policing and Fire responding to it.

The report published by the Children’s Commissioner yesterday is truly shocking. Children as young as eight have been strip searched, more than half of searches took place without an appropriate adult present, and 1% of strip searches were conducted within public view. Last year, I questioned Ministers about the Child Q scandal, in which a 15-year-old girl was strip searched at school, while on her period, without an appropriate adult present. The then Minister for Crime and Policing, the right hon. Member for North West Hampshire (Kit Malthouse), said that if there was “a systemic problem”, the Government would

“act on it accordingly.”—[Official Report, 21 March 2022; Vol. 711, c. 29.]

This report makes it crystal clear that we do have a systemic problem. It is clear that nothing has changed since Child Q. One teenager told the commissioner that

“every time I’ve been strip searched, it very much feels like a tactic used on purpose to humiliate me.”

No child should be profiled for a strip search because of their ethnicity. No child should be strip searched in view of the public. No child should be strip searched without an appropriate adult present.

The Government say that the IOPC is investigating and that we must await its findings. I say to the Minister that we have enough evidence already, so I ask her the following questions. Will she write to all chief constables to make clear the importance of adhering to the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 codes of practice? Will she implement the commissioner’s recommendations to amend codes A and C so that an appropriate adult is always present, save in the most exceptional circumstances? Will the Government explicitly rule out performing strip searches in schools?

The guidance is not being followed routinely around the country. We need immediate action before another child is strip searched in such humiliating, traumatising circumstances again. No child can afford to wait.

Sarah Dines Portrait Miss Dines
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I thank the hon. Lady for her submissions. It is important to note that while very occasionally a child as young as eight has been strip searched—[Interruption.] May I just clarify this? It is important to note that 95% of searches carried out are of males and 75% are of 16 to 17-year-olds, and that something illegal is found in about half the cases.

On the request for the Home Secretary to write to all chief constables about the possible upgrading or reconsideration of Police and Criminal Evidence Act codes A and C, that is being considered very seriously. Strip searches in schools will also be considered seriously. The report was received only very recently, but it is being looked at very earnestly and quickly. Three of its recommendations appertain directly to the Home Office, and they too are being looked at very seriously.

Kit Malthouse Portrait Kit Malthouse (North West Hampshire) (Con)
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I am pleased to hear that the Minister is taking the report as seriously as she obviously is. It is clear that police forces need to do significant work in respect of the alarming levels of non-compliance with existing guidelines on strip searches. However, the Minister will be aware that there is no boundary to the evil that these gangs will perpetrate, and that if we create no-go areas or particular demographics where the police are restricted in some way in their searches, we immediately expose those demographics to exploitation by gangs. She will know that, for example, one of the reasons why county line gangs use teenagers so much is that the police cannot recruit them as informants. As a result, they are seen as easily exploitable by those gangs. While the Minister does her work to ensure that when strip searches are performed on minors that is done within the guidelines, will she ensure that she does not unwittingly expose very young children, in particular, to even more exploitation than they are currently exposed to?

Sarah Dines Portrait Miss Dines
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My right hon. Friend is entirely right. There are serious and important safeguarding reasons behind this, which is why it is important that the PACE codes are adhered to. Young people are often exploited by criminal gangs who recruit them to transport drugs in intimate body cavities, and we need to identify and stop that. It is shocking that about half the children who are searched have such illegal substances on them, often because of those criminal gangs. Stopping that will require a mixture of policing and safeguarding, and we need to get the balance right. Like my right hon. Friend, I am very keen to ensure that the police are doing what they should be doing, because no one wants them to go beyond what is unlawful.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the shadow Minister.

Sarah Jones Portrait Sarah Jones (Croydon Central) (Lab)
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We all accept that in certain extreme circumstances it will be necessary to search children, and this discussion does not question that. The findings of the Children’s Commissioner, Dame Rachel de Souza, on the strip search of children are shocking, and I pay tribute to her. One child who was strip searched aged 13 is quoted as saying:

“They told me to get naked. They told me to bend over… I think there were about three officers present. So, I’ve got three fully grown blokes staring at my bollocks”.

I repeat that that child was 13.

Let us be clear about what the law allows a strip search to entail. The report states that

“searching officers may make physical contact with…orifices. Searching officers can physically manipulate intimate body parts, including the penis or buttocks”.

That is very intrusive. However, Dame Rachel found that 53% of searches of children did not include an appropriate adult, in 45% of cases the venue was not even recorded, 2% of searches took place in a public or commercial setting, and 1% took place in public view. The report also identified very high levels of disproportionality, with black children up to six times more likely to be strip searched. This is not just a problem with the Met; other forces conducted proportionally more strip searches of children.

Child Q was strip searched in December 2020, and a report on the search was published in March 2022. That was a year ago. I stood in the House and told the then Minister that the guidance in the authorised professional practice of the College of Policing on strip searching children and Police and Criminal Evidence Act codes A and C were not clear enough, but nothing has been done. Dame Rachel has said exactly the same in her report one year on. Why did the Government not act a year ago? Why have we allowed hundreds more children to be strip searched without proper protection? Yet again, the Conservatives’ hands-off approach is under-mining confidence in policing and the safeguarding of our young people.

I appreciate that this report is new and that the Minister is new and she will take some time to consider the recommendations, but the fundamental review of PACE called for by the Children’s Commissioner is in the Minister’s gift and we have been calling for it for a year. Will the Minister commit to it today? If not, will she at least give us a timescale on when she will come back with how she plans to act?

I hope the Minister will condemn the response of the Government Minister in the other place yesterday in a debate on the same subject, who simply said:

“I assume that they have very good reasons to do this; otherwise, they would not conduct these searches.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 27 March 2023; Vol. 829, c. 17.]

That complacency and that optimism bias fly in the face of Dame Rachel’s findings. Does the Minister accept that there is any problem at all? We need to see change, and the Minister can make it now.

Sarah Dines Portrait Miss Dines
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The Government and I very much welcome this report. There is, of course, opportunity for change and improvement, and we must do better for our children, but I do not accept the general proposition that the Government are doing nothing, as the hon. Lady suggests. That is simply not the case.

There has been ground-leading engagement recently. Since the case of Child Q came to light, the Home Office has engaged widely with stakeholders including the National Police Chiefs’ Council, custody leads and stop and search leads. The College of Policing is making improvements. His Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary and fire and rescue services, the Police Federation, the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners and wider civil society organisations have been engaged by the police. There is movement in this space. Members on this side of the House take it very seriously. We want to safeguard our children from the criminal gangs.

The hon. Lady mentioned PACE. We are committed to looking at that. One of the core recommendations that bites against the Home Office is for the proper reconsideration of PACE to see if it is appropriate, and that will be done. I give a commitment to consider that recommendation carefully.

In relation to data, we have moved significantly in the last three years in that regard. We have increased our custody data collection to allow people who are looking at this to have more cognisance of the research that can be done to improve things, for example by knowing more information about the age, ethnicity or gender of somebody who is to be searched. This information is crucial. We cannot just jump to conclusions; this needs to be evidence-based. I am pleased that the Government are working on data.

This Government believe in scrutiny. As we set out in the “Inclusive Britain” report, the Government and policing partners will create a new national framework for how our police powers, such as stop and search, are scrutinised at local level. There are also protective measures to protect children and sometimes, it has to be said, to protect police officers. There is an increase in the use of body-worn videos to explore the sharing of body-worn video footage with local scrutiny panels—[Interruption.] Opposition Members seem to find this hilarious, but I think it is really important that local scrutiny bodies are able to see what is happening on the ground. The Home Office is supporting the Ministry of Justice, which is working really hard with the National Police Chiefs’ Council to develop these scrutiny panels so that the use of stop and search can be examined more, with the aim of addressing the difference in the experience of ethnic minority children and adults in police custody. This is really important work.

Kelly Tolhurst Portrait Kelly Tolhurst (Rochester and Strood) (Con)
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I, too, was worried and concerned about some of the things in the report, but I am pleased that the Home Office is taking steps and taking it incredibly seriously. In my constituency over recent weeks, I have seen an absolute increase in gangs operating, with children being exploited, and it is causing trouble on our high streets. It is essential that Kent police continue to have these powers to stop and search. My constituency and the people in it mean a lot to me, and therefore, despite the moans and groans from the other side of the House, stop and search is an essential tool, as is the ability of police officers to search for weapons and illegal substances. Will the Minister confirm that that will continue, and that we will take the findings of the report seriously?

Sarah Dines Portrait Miss Dines
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My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. I know she works incredibly hard on this issue in her constituency. There are important reasons why strip search has to be used on some occasions. It is a tool that must be used proportionately, and it has to be in the police’s armoury when dealing with criminal gangs. This is a safeguarding issue, too, and not only a pure policing issue. We need to protect our young people from these criminal gangs, and it is only right that we remember that the police find something in about half of the cases. The police must act lawfully, but we should not stop them using these powers.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee.

Diana Johnson Portrait Dame Diana Johnson (Kingston upon Hull North) (Lab)
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The Children’s Commissioner has uncovered the shocking absence of a working system of safeguards across multiple police forces. There is no scrutiny by senior police officers to ensure that basic protections for children are being met, and a complete disregard for the potential trauma of strip searching vulnerable children.

Again, just one week after the Casey review, we see that police forces have systemic problems with transparency, scrutiny and non-compliance with the rules. Given that even experienced officers are not following basic safeguards, what will the Minister do to ensure that the huge influx of new, inexperienced officers brought in under the uplift programme—often supervised by sergeants with very limited experience—are properly trained and understand their basic duty to protect and safeguard children?

Sarah Dines Portrait Miss Dines
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The right hon. Lady raises an important issue. As I have previously said at the Dispatch Box, the education and training of police officers is vital and more needs to be done. That is why the Government are engaging with the College of Policing to improve education in this regard.

Obviously, there is also local mentoring, but the right hon. Lady is right that better scrutiny is needed, which is why the Government are leading the push for better scrutiny of police forces by local groups. The Government are working hard in this area, and it is about time Opposition Members accepted the force of the Government’s work, some of it groundbreaking, to protect our children and the public from the criminal gangs who exploit children.

Holly Mumby-Croft Portrait Holly Mumby-Croft (Scunthorpe) (Con)
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We have an outstanding police force in north Lincolnshire, and Humberside Police is widely recognised as the best force in the country. I recognise there is a small, limited set of circumstances in which these searches may be necessary, but we have to find a balance between allowing the police to do their job and protecting children. What can we do to ensure that, from today, any child who finds themselves in a situation in which they are to be strip searched by the police is able, if they wish, to have an appropriate adult present?

Sarah Dines Portrait Miss Dines
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My hon. Friend raises an important point. Of course, PACE code C says there must be an appropriate adult present unless the specific exceptions I set out earlier are met. The PACE powers are quite onerous, and it is right that, when the state does something so intrusive to a child, or indeed an adult, the PACE code must be adhered to. Where the Children’s Commissioner has found the police wanting, there needs to be improvement, and the Government do not shy away from that. There needs to be proper protection for our children. PACE must be adhered to, and it will be reviewed.

Marsha De Cordova Portrait Marsha De Cordova (Battersea) (Lab)
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I congratulate the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) on securing this urgent question. The findings of this report are damning and deeply concerning. The case of Child Q shone a light on this abhorrent practice of the widespread use of strip searches on children as young as eight, with issues around safeguarding, child protection, racial disproportionality and, more importantly, the adultification of young children and the poor quality of data. We know the trauma of this practice will have a long-term effect on children’s mental health, so what are this Government doing to protect and safeguard the mental health of children? Why on earth is the Minister not accepting these recommendations now?

Sarah Dines Portrait Miss Dines
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It would be alarming if a Government accepted recommendations within hours of a report; we need there to be proper understanding and consideration. After looking at the three basic recommendations, I am concerned that Opposition Members seek to inflame local policing by emphasising, for example, the strip and search of an eight-year-old, when there have been in excess of 2,500 such strip searches—most of which were of people over the age of 16. It is not right for the Labour party to inflame local policing by misquoting or misrepresenting what is going on. I reiterate that 75% of those searched are 16 or 17, and about half are found with illegal substances or weapons on them.

Helen Hayes Portrait Helen Hayes (Dulwich and West Norwood) (Lab)
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The shocking strip search of Child Q happened in 2020 and came to public attention a year ago. It is not acceptable for the Government to hide behind the Independent Office for Police Conduct investigation in order to justify a lack of action on the routine breaching of existing guidance, and it is not acceptable for the Minister to downplay or excuse the routine breaching of existing guidance as she has done today. Sixteen and 17-year-olds are still children. Why has there been such a disgraceful lack of urgency and action on this issue, and when will the Minister be able to guarantee that children will always be treated as children by the police, with the full application of statutory safeguarding duties?

Sarah Dines Portrait Miss Dines
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With the greatest of respect, I do not accept that I have downplayed the seriousness of this issue; it is very serious. The Government received the report on Monday. Today is Tuesday. Proper consideration is the basis of good government; there is no need for knee-jerk reactions. The Government are working very hard and will continue to do so. It would be damaging to jump in on the Child Q situation before the IOPC report, as due processes need to be adhered to, but there are concerning warning signs and the Government take the matter very seriously.

Chi Onwurah Portrait Chi Onwurah (Newcastle upon Tyne Central) (Lab)
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What is the Minister doing to address adultification bias in our police and justice system, by which black children are systematically treated as adults and thus denied the basic protections to which they have a right, as we see in the report? Or will she dismiss it as more woke nonsense in order to hide her Government’s fundamental failure of leadership on this question?

Sarah Dines Portrait Miss Dines
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With respect, I have not used the word “wokeification”—[Interruption.] I will be corrected if I have. The adultification of any child, regardless of colour or sex, is not acceptable. That is why we have code C of PACE to protect and safeguard children. It is not right or acceptable that any person—child or adult—is strip searched because of their ethnicity, and adultification is not appropriate. The police should not be making children feel like they are adults. There are rules: there should be an appropriate adult present, and the process should be done in an appropriate way. The police must be called out when they are not doing this properly, but they also need to be able to get on with their job when they are acting lawfully.

Kate Osamor Portrait Kate Osamor (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op)
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It is no wonder that a report by Crest Advisory found that just 36% of black children trust the police, compared to 75% of white children. Black children know full well that they are not receiving fair treatment, and we must be able to hold the police to account for that. When will the Government commit to compelling police forces to report annually on the strip searching of children, including information on ethnicity?

Sarah Dines Portrait Miss Dines
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As I mentioned, collecting data is fundamental. Initially, that will be on a voluntary basis, but the Government are working with forces and the National Police Chiefs’ Council to improve data collection in future years. Such information will be part of our annual statistical bulletin. It is important that we have proper evidence and data, so the hon. Lady is right to want that. The Government are committed to improving this provision in discussion with the NPCC.

Ian Paisley Portrait Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP)
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The Minister has made it clear that, if the police are to have these powers, they must be used proportionately and within the guidelines, but it is as obvious as a galloping horse that they are not being used proportionately and they are not being used within the guidelines. The statistics that have been produced with regard to Northern Ireland show that in 2021—whenever we had a period of devolution—there were 27 searches of children, and in only one case was there an appropriate adult accompanying that child. The justice system in Northern Ireland allowed that atrocious set of circumstances to pertain. Between 2021 and 2022, there were 53 searches of children, and only three items were found: in one case, a mobile phone; and in two instances, drugs. The Minister can say, “If you have devolution of these issues in Northern Ireland, it can all be swept under the carpet.” It cannot. This House and the Department are responsible now. What will the Minister do about it?

Sarah Dines Portrait Miss Dines
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If the Northern Ireland statistics put forward by the hon. Gentleman are accurate—I am sure they are, as he has done the research—they are shocking and concerning. I am therefore very happy to say that, in the absence of the Assembly, I will speak to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to see what more can be done. These are draconian powers; the police need them in circumstances and in some circumstances they should not be used, but there needs to be a proper balance. I am very happy to undertake to speak to the Secretary of State about this issue.

Florence Eshalomi Portrait Florence Eshalomi (Vauxhall) (Lab/Co-op)
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I try not to get personal—to keep things professional—but my daughter is eight years old. To think that she could have been strip searched and I, her parent, would not have been informed! I think about all the other parents and carers whose children this has happened to, on what seems to be a regular basis.

Following the news about Child Q, I and my two other Lambeth colleagues—my hon. Friends the Members for Streatham (Bell Ribeiro-Addy) and for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes)—wrote to our local police, because we found that our borough had the highest rate of multiple searches of intimate parts, or strip searches. This is traumatising for the young people involved.

I would like the Minister to read an important book called “Girlhood Unfiltered” by Ebinehita Iyere, which details the trauma that these young girls are going through and says that, for the young people being subjected to the experience, it is not a new one; this has been going on for many years, and the data and investigation are only highlighting the scale of the problem. Respectfully, when will the Minister and this Government outlaw this abhorrent practice on our young children, and treat them like young children?

Sarah Dines Portrait Miss Dines
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Children must be safeguarded, and treated fairly and lawfully, which is why it is important to have a full view of what is happening. It is important to look at the statistics in context. Unless there are exceptional circumstances, a child should not be strip searched without an appropriate adult and without a parent being informed. That is the law and those are the rules, and the police must abide by them. When they do not, they quite rightly must be held to account. Again, when it comes to the statistics, I implore the Opposition to have some perspective: most of those searched are 16 to 17 years old. When they are younger, there needs to be a high level of exceptionality, and when the police get it wrong they must be called out, which is why I take the report very seriously and will be reviewing the three recommendations to the Home Office.

Ellie Reeves Portrait Ellie Reeves (Lewisham West and Penge) (Lab)
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Serious concerns were raised in the Casey report about the strip searching of children, alongside a damning account of culture in the Met. We know that there are serious issues with culture and behaviour in police forces across the country, so can I ask the Minister why the Government still have not introduced national standards on vetting, misconduct and training within the police?

Sarah Dines Portrait Miss Dines
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As the hon. Lady knows, the Home Secretary is looking at these issues at pace. It is clear from Baroness Casey’s review and recent cases across England and Wales that such behaviour, including instances of racism, misogyny, homophobia, are completely unacceptable, and I have been clear that standards must improve as a matter of urgency. The hon. Lady is right that policing is built on trust and we need to improve standards. However, I remind the House that the majority of police officers and members of staff are still honest, good and committed and work hard, and they can be let down by police officers who act beyond the law. It is critical that we do not lose the momentum that the Government have pushed forward, so we will be working on this issue in conjunction with the Home Secretary.

Janet Daby Portrait Janet Daby (Lewisham East) (Lab)
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I am truly shocked and horrified by the Minister’s tone. This is an absolutely damning report. The Children’s Commissioner is putting children first, when will the Government do so? Finally, does the Minister consider it appropriate that children should be strip searched in the back of a police van? In effect, this is a violation. How does she think that this affects a child, and what will she do about it?

Sarah Dines Portrait Miss Dines
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I am disappointed that the hon. Lady does not think that my tone is appropriate. Strip searches are very serious. They have to be lawful and they have to be carried out in the most appropriate way, with the least amount of trauma. There is much research on this, which the Children’s Commissioner has looked at very carefully, and so will the Government. I can give a commitment that the Government will be looking at this very important issue. We have a balance to strike. We have to safeguard children in relation to gangs, because those gangs will abuse them. If there is a strict outlawing of strip searches, which some Opposition Members would like to see, the criminal gangs would have a field day abusing our children. That cannot be right, and we need time to look at these recommendations.

Simon Lightwood Portrait Simon Lightwood (Wakefield) (Lab/Co-op)
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As a father of two young children, I am furious. I am horrified by the findings of this report that children as young as eight are being strip searched. I, too, have an eight-year-old child. Many of these children will have been confused, humiliated and scared, and, undoubtedly, this will have a long-lasting impact on them and their trust in the police. The Children’s Commissioner recommends that forces should review all the concerning strip search cases identified in her report and refer them to the Independent Office for Police Conduct. Will the Minister confirm that she will accept this recommendation and issue a firm deadline for the forces to comply, and, for goodness’ sake, Mr Speaker, will she accept that 16 and 17-year-olds are still children?

Sarah Dines Portrait Miss Dines
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Let me highlight the statistics, which are correct. Seventy five per cent of those strip searched are 16 to 17-year-olds. Yes, they are still children, but I have added that information to show some balance. Very, very few eight-year-olds, with respect, have been strip searched, and that has to be in exceptional circumstances. However, I do take the report very seriously, and there will be a proper consideration of what can be done. There is always room for change. I, too, was concerned to read some of the facts in the report. The work that was done is very much valued, and I welcome it, because any criticism of the police is an opportunity to do better. We on the Conservative Benches are committed to do better rather than to grandstand on the issue of ages. I remind Members that 75% of those strip searched are over the age of 16 and 17. The Opposition must get a sense of proportion. Mistakes have been made. When the police act unlawfully we must step in, but we also need to allow the police to do their job lawfully.

Alex Cunningham Portrait Alex Cunningham (Stockton North) (Lab)
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I am not surprised that the Minister is struggling this afternoon as she tries to defend the indefensible. Instead of doing that, can she tell us how she will ensure that children are protected from what could be termed child abuse? Did she really suggest that body cameras could be used during strip searches?

Sarah Dines Portrait Miss Dines
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It is child abuse when criminal gangs are allowed to use children to carry weapons and drugs. That is child abuse. As safeguarding Minister, I wish to save each and every one of those children. There will be times when the police have to do their job. As I have said previously, in about half of searches, something is found. There are occasions when the police go beyond their lawful powers, and they need to be called out when they do. The Government will seriously look at the recommendation to review PACE codes C and A, but any change will be based on the evidence, not on a blanket view that this should be outlawed or not. We on the Conservative Benches believe in doing things proportionately and carefully based on the evidence.

Andrew Gwynne Portrait Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab)
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I am afraid that, in her response, the Minister has been needlessly partisan. We all want to see children respected by authority. She is right to say that children must be safeguarded and that strip searches, if they are to happen, have to be lawful. There are huge variances across police forces. I asked for the data relating to Greater Manchester police. Between 2018 and 2022, there were 20 strip searches, none of which involved children under the age of 15. Nineteen involved boys and one a girl. In 13 cases, illegal items were found, and seven resulted in arrests. All those happened with appropriate adults present, I am told. But then Rachel de Souza stipulated that the strip searching of children requires robust safeguards, and I agree with her. What does the Minister think needs to be done to ensure that these safeguards are in place in every police force?

Sarah Dines Portrait Miss Dines
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Every police force needs to act lawfully. I am pleased to say that there will be consideration of the variances in what should be lawful and good practice. In relation to the 20 strip searches—I am not familiar with the exact number, but I will take the hon. Gentleman at his word—13 resulted in illegal weapons or substances being found. That is, indeed, shocking, and we know that, most likely, criminal gangs will be involved. I refer again to the fact that there is a balance to be struck because it is important: the police need to be able to do their job. They must do it lawfully, but evidence shows that often, sadly, children are being abused by criminal gangs and having these items on them. I note with interest the statistics for Manchester. There will be a proper consideration of exactly what the Children’s Commissioner says about the variance between how police are reacting and performing in different police areas.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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Clearly, for all of us in the House, this is a difficult and sensitive issue. All of us are concerned for the young people, and some of us have given personal examples. As Members have said, there seems to be a systemic problem. In Northern Ireland, between 2021 and 2022, there were 53 strip searches, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) mentioned, with only one adult present. I believe that the Minister accepts that changes must be made. What steps will she take to ensure that there is a concerted and agreed policy for this UK-wide problem? Will she liaise with the Department of Justice in Northern Ireland to implement reforms that apply everywhere, because the Minister in Northern Ireland and her Department also need to be accountable?

Sarah Dines Portrait Miss Dines
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I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. I will of course work with the Ministry of Justice, and I am sure that it will also reach out to the Northern Ireland Department of Justice. I, too, will reach out to the Secretary of State to see what can be done. As I said in answer to the question about Manchester, some areas have more concerning statistics, which is why data collection is essential. This Government have moved further than any other Government in collecting data. Data is really important. I am not normally someone who relies to that extent on statistical analysis in isolation, but it is important because it enables us to point a finger at certain police forces that frankly need to do better. I am grateful to the hon. Member for raising that matter and I can reassure him that I will work together with the Ministry of Justice.

Ian Paisley Portrait Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP)
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On a point of order, Mr Speaker.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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A point of order comes after statements unless it is relevant to the urgent question.

Ian Paisley Portrait Ian Paisley
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It does have relevance, Mr Speaker.

During the course of questions this morning, the terror threat level in Northern Ireland was raised to severe, making it clear that an attack is now highly likely. Is the Department able to inform the House of the reasons for that increase in the terror threat?

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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There are two things. First, the hon. Gentleman has misled me, because I thought the point of order was in relation to the question that he had asked. Secondly, we do not discuss security at this level. I think it will have been mentioned, and I am sure that somebody can contact him to give him the information that he is seeking.

That completes the urgent question.

Afghan Resettlement Update

Tuesday 28th March 2023

(1 year, 1 month ago)

Commons Chamber
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13:09
Johnny Mercer Portrait The Minister for Veterans' Affairs (Johnny Mercer)
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It has now been over 18 months since the conclusion of Operation Pitting in Afghanistan, the biggest UK military evacuation in more than 70 years. That unprecedented mission enabled around 15,000 people to leave Afghanistan and reach safety here in the UK. Since then, we have continued to welcome thousands more of those who loyally served alongside the UK armed forces, as well as those who stood up for British values such as democracy, women’s rights and freedom of speech and vulnerable groups at risk in the region. To date, nearly 24,500 vulnerable people have been safely relocated to the UK from Afghanistan.

Members of this House will know that this is a matter very close to my heart. This Government are determined to fulfil our strategic commitments to Afghanistan. We owe a debt of gratitude to those people and in return our offer to them has been generous. We have ensured that all those relocated as a result of Op Pitting have fee-free indefinite leave to remain, giving them certainty about their status, entitlement to benefits and the right to work. Operation Warm Welcome has ensured all those relocated to the UK through safe and legal routes have been able to access the vital health, education and employment support they need to integrate into our society, including English language training for those who need it, the right to work and access to the benefits system.

Given the unprecedented speed and scale of the evacuation, we warmly welcomed our Afghan friends and eligible British nationals into hotel accommodation as a temporary solution until settled accommodation could be found. That ensured that all Afghans have been housed in safe and secure accommodation from the moment they arrived; it gave our Afghan friends peace of mind and allowed us to move quickly during an emergency.

However, bridging hotels are not, and were never designed to be, a permanent solution. While dedicated teams across central and local government, as well as partners in the voluntary and community sector, have ensured that more than 9,000 Afghans have been supported into settled homes, around 8,000 remain in hotel accommodation. Around half of that cohort are children and around half have been living in a hotel for more than one year.

My colleagues have indicated that that is an unacceptable and unsustainable situation. The Government share that view—I personally share that view—and the situation needs to change. Long-term residency in hotels has prevented some Afghans from properly putting down roots, committing to employment and integrating into communities, which creates uncertainty as they look to rebuild their lives in the United Kingdom long term.

Beyond the human cost, the financial cost to the UK taxpayer of hotel accommodation for the Afghan cohort now stands at £1 million per day. As I have said, that needs to change. To help people to rebuild their lives here, we have a duty to end the practice of Afghan families living in hotels in the UK. That is in the best interest of families and individuals and will enable them to benefit from the security of housing and long-term consistency of public services, including schooling and the freedoms of independent living that only suitable non-hotel accommodation can provide.

That is why, with the support of my right hon. Friends the Members for Newark (Robert Jenrick) and for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), I am today announcing the Government’s intention to step up our support, to help resettled and relocated Afghans to access independent, settled accommodation and to end the use of hotel bridging accommodation for that cohort.

We will begin writing to individuals and families accommodated in Afghan bridging hotels at the end of April. They will be provided with at least three months’ notice of when their access to bridging accommodation will end. That will crystallise a reasonable timeframe in the minds of our Afghan friends, with significant support from central and local government at every step as required, together with their existing access to welfare and the right to work, to find good, settled places to live in the longer term.

We remain unbowed in our commitment to those who supported us at great personal risk in Afghanistan. The debt we owe them is one borne by our nation as a whole. We also need to support those people we have brought to the UK as genuine refugees fleeing persecution. The UK has and always will provide a safe refuge for those who arrive through safe and legal routes. There are veterans across this country enjoying normal lives today because of the service and sacrifice of that cohort who kept them safe in Afghanistan. It is a national duty that we have in communities up and down this country.

That is why the Government are taking significant steps to honour and protect that group by providing increased support and funding to facilitate their transition into long-term settled accommodation. Trained staff, including Home Office liaison officers, Department for Work and Pensions work coaches, council staff and charities, will be based in hotels regularly to provide advice to Afghans, including information on how to rent in the private sector, help to find jobs and English language training. In addition, we will publish guidance for families on what support is available and how to access it.

We are announcing £35 million in new funding to enable local authorities to provide increased support for Afghan households to move from hotels into settled accommodation across England. The local authority housing fund will also be expanded by £250 million, with the majority of the additional funding used to house Afghans currently in bridging accommodation and the rest used to ease existing homelessness pressures.

The measures represent a generous offer, and in return we expect families to help themselves. While the Government realise our responsibilities to the cohort, there is a responsibility on them to take the opportunities offered under those schemes and integrate into UK society. Where an offer of accommodation can be made and is turned down, another will now not be forthcoming. At a time when there are many pressures on the taxpayer and the housing market, it is not right that people can choose to stay in hotels when other perfectly suitable accommodation is available. We are balancing difficult competing responsibilities, including to the UK taxpayer.

As well as ensuring that Afghans already in the UK can move into long-term accommodation, we will continue to honour the commitments we have made to bring people into the UK into sustainable non-hotel accommodation. That includes British Council and GardaWorld contractors, Chevening alumni offered places through pathway 3 of the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme, and refugees referred to us by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees through pathway 2.

Welcoming people who come to the UK through safe and legal routes has always been, and will always be, a vital way in which the UK helps those in need. We are legislating to ensure our commitment to safe and legal routes in the Illegal Migration Bill, but the use of hotels to accommodate families for lengthy periods of time in the UK is not sustainable, or indeed appropriate, for anybody. The flow of people to whom we have responsibility is not working as we would like at the moment.

We will honour our commitment to those who remain in Afghanistan. Our priority is to ensure that they can enter suitable accommodation, which is the right thing for those families. Future UK arrivals will go directly into appropriate accommodation rather than costly temporary hotel accommodation. That is the right thing to do to ensure that those to whom we have made commitments are supported and are able to successfully integrate into life in the UK.

We will provide more detail in due course on plans for supporting people yet to arrive into suitable and appropriate accommodation, but what we are setting out today is the fair and right thing to do, both for Afghan communities to rebuild their lives here, and for the British public, who continue to show enormous generosity towards those who come here safely and legally. This Government will realise our commitments to the people of Afghanistan, and I commend this statement to the House.

13:17
John Healey Portrait John Healey (Wentworth and Dearne) (Lab)
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I thank the Minister for advance sight of the statement. He himself means well, but this statement should be from the Defence Secretary, explaining why, 18 months after Afghan families were airlifted to the UK, 8,000 are still in temporary hotels and the backlog in processing cases has risen to 66,000. It should be from the Home Secretary, explaining why it took nine months to open the alternative ACRS scheme and why, by the end of last year, just four people had been brought to safety in the UK since the fall of Kabul. It should be from the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Secretary, explaining why he has not required all council areas to play a part in discharging the national obligation we owe to these Afghans and their families. We could have built the homes they need since our armed forces, in that amazing Operation Pitting, airlifted them from Kabul to safety in the UK in August 2021.

As the Minister said, this nation promised those who put their lives at risk to serve alongside our armed forces in Afghanistan that we would relocate and settle them, give their families safety, and help them to rebuild their lives. That obligation is felt most fiercely by those who served in our forces in Afghanistan, whose operations depended on the courageous Afghan interpreters and guides. Never mind Operation Warm Welcome, and never mind the warm words from the Minister today; he has confirmed that the Government are giving them the cold shoulder. He is serving eviction notices on 8,000 Afghans, half of whom are children, with no guarantee that they will be offered a suitable, settled place to live.

Let us nail a myth at the heart of this statement. The Minister said:

“It is not right that people can choose to stay in hotels when other perfectly suitable accommodation is available.”

The Government’s website confirms that, at the end of last month, the number of Afghan households who had refused accommodation offers was just 258. They want homes, not hotels; they want to rebuild their lives; they want to contribute to this country—their new country—which has offered them refuge.

The Government failed to plan for an orderly withdrawal from Afghanistan in the 18 months following the Doha agreement in February 2020. Ministers set up the Afghan relocations and assistance policy only in April 2021, and they relocated only 200 Afghans before the fall of Kabul in August 2021. The Government have failed the brave Afghans who supported our troops before the fall of Afghanistan, and they have failed them since.

Can we now fill in the many gaps in the Minister’s statement? To date, how many ARAP and ACRS applicants have been rehoused in permanent homes? What is the current backlog in processing ARAP and ACRS cases? How many ARAP-eligible applicants remain in Afghanistan? Why, since November, have there been no flights carrying ARAP-eligible Afghans and their families from Pakistan? Have there been any more ARAP data breaches since the one in February 2022? How many hotels are still in use as temporary bridging accommodation for Afghan families? What consultation has there been with local authorities to identify the thousands of permanent homes that are still needed? Will Afghans who are still in hotels be given notice to quit only when a permanent home has been identified for them? How will decisions on eviction deadlines for individual hotels be determined? Who will make those decisions? Will the Minister guarantee today that none of those Afghans will be made homeless as a result of being moved on from the hotels in which they currently live?

The ARAP and ACRS have been beset by failures: those in fear of their lives left in Afghanistan; housing promises broken; processing staff cut; ballooning backlogs; breaches of personal data; and even the Ministry of Defence telling applicants that they should get the Taliban to verify their ARAP application documents. Far from being—as the Minister said—fair and right, this record and this statement shame us all.

Johnny Mercer Portrait Johnny Mercer
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I will address some of those points in turn. I will not stand here and defend the system—I have said what I have said about it previously—and that is not what I have sought to do today. I have been clear that what I am trying to do is identify a path forward in what is an unprecedented and very difficult situation, and that is what I will focus on in my remarks.

When it comes to giving Afghans in this country a cold shoulder, I would say that it is a pretty expensive cold shoulder, with the £285 million of new funding announced today. In terms of the number of people who have turned down homes, there is a significant proportion. The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the figure of 258, but it is higher than that now. A significant proportion of Afghans have turned down homes. It would not be right to ignore that problem and allow Afghans to remain in hotels—with families’ food and accommodation paid for—ad infinitum for the next 20 years. That would not be right, and I will not be cowed into accepting that it is.

All the numbers are publicly available. We reckon that about 4,300 entitled personnel remain in Afghanistan and want to get over here, and 12,100 have arrived to date on the ARAP scheme. On the ACRS, we have promised 20,000. We have had 7,637 arrive through that scheme. There are three different pathways for that scheme, and I am happy to speak to colleagues here or elsewhere about those pathways. Clearly, I accept that some of those pathways have not been running as we would like, but that is precisely why I am here. If we cannot move those people out of hotels—which are unsuitable for them, for UK communities and for UK taxpayers—we cannot extract people who are entitled to be in this country because of the sacrifices they made during Op Herrick in Afghanistan.

Although this is a difficult policy area, we will not yield in doing the right thing by tackling difficult problems and striking the balance between ensuring that we make it as easy and seamless as possible for Afghans to get out of hotels and to integrate into the United Kingdom, and ensuring that the Afghan cohort understands that the offer was never to remain in hotels ad infinitum and all the problems that brings with it.

I accept that this is a difficult policy area; I accept that the track record on this policy area has been difficult. To be fair to everybody who has done this before, we are facing an incredibly difficult, unprecedented and dynamic situation, with the collapse of international will to remain in Afghanistan. We are now doing our best to see through our strategic promises to the people of Afghanistan, and we will absolutely do that. We will strain every sinew to get people out of hotels and into the UK community, and unleash the wealth of veteran and voluntary support, which I know wants to welcome those people with open arms and make them feel part of the UK. I look forward to that challenge.

John Baron Portrait Mr John Baron (Basildon and Billericay) (Con)
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I again commend the Prime Minister for his recent direct intervention to break the ACRS logjam by allowing British Council contractors and others to continue applications in the safety of a third country, thereby allowing them to leave Afghanistan, where they were in fear of their lives. However, a significant number of approved contractors remain in Afghanistan and are unable to obtain and/or afford the necessary visa and paperwork to exit Afghanistan and enter the safety of a third country. How is the Minister working with colleagues across Government to remove those obstacles?

Johnny Mercer Portrait Johnny Mercer
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I thank my hon. Friend for his many contributions on this piece of work. The ACRS pathway to which he refers can now be applied to from a third country. As I said in my statement, we have made commitments to that cohort of people. One of the driving motivations behind this difficult piece of work is that there are people stuck in Afghanistan and we have a duty to get them over here. We simply cannot do that if we just continue loading hotels and building pressure in our local communities, at huge cost to the taxpayer. That is one of the primary motivations, and the moral case, for what we are doing. We still have a duty to people who served. We have made those commitments to the people of Afghanistan, and I and the Prime Minister are absolutely determined to fulfil those commitments. Today is the start of that process.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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We come now to the SNP spokesperson.

Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss (Glasgow Central) (SNP)
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I thank the Minister for his statement. We on the SNP Benches are absolutely clear that hotel accommodation is not appropriate, particularly for families but also because of the tragic Park Inn incident in Glasgow. We know the consequences of people being kept in situations in which they are under severe stress. I have a number of questions for the Minister. It is not clear whether any specific funding is coming to Scotland as part of this. England is specified, but Scotland is not. What communication has the Minister had with the Scottish Government and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities on the issue in Scotland? It would be useful to know the exact numbers in Scotland at the moment. STV made a freedom of information request last year and found that there were 300 people in bridging hotels across Scotland. I am not clear from what he has said today what the current numbers are, where those people are living at present and who will be picking up the pieces.

I was concerned by what the Minister said about offers being turned down and another offer not being forthcoming. Scottish housing legislation refers to a “reasonable” offer of accommodation, and that is important, because the accommodation being offered might not be appropriate for a family. There might be overcrowding; we know that there is a shortage of larger family homes. The accommodation might be far away from schools where children are currently being educated and from the community support that Afghan groups value so much. It might be far away from mosques and from shops that sell halal meat, for example. It should be a reasonable offer, rather than saying, “That’s all you’re getting” when an offer is rejected, and I am quite worried if that is the road the Government are going down. It will be local authorities and charities that pick up the pieces if people are put out on the street. Families in particular will be at risk, but other people will also be put at risk if they are made homeless.

To describe UNHCR pathway 2 as being deficient would be the understatement of the year, since only 22 people have been brought in under it so far. I have dealt with many cases as a result of this deficiency of the Government. I have had people at my surgery who have made expressions of interest but have heard nothing back. They cannot wait indefinitely in Afghanistan, where they are unsafe. People are moving about to avoid persecution and to avoid the Taliban finding them, and it is incredibly dangerous for the people who are left there. When Afghanistan fell, I had around 80 cases of folk who had family in Afghanistan, and I only know of two who managed to get to safety in Scotland. People cannot wait in danger indefinitely, so can the Minister tell me when those who have made expressions of interest under this pathway will have their cases processed and will arrive home in Scotland?

Johnny Mercer Portrait Johnny Mercer
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I will take those questions in two broad handfuls and talk about funding first. Funding for round 2 of the local authority housing fund is coming from existing Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities underspend, and that funding is devolved and has already gone through the Barnett formula. The £35 million being put into casework teams across the country is UK-wide, and we will be deploying casework teams into hotels in Scotland to work with local authorities to ensure that we support Afghans out of those hotels and into the community.

On the issue of balance and a fair and reasonable offer, nobody in this Government wants to make any of these individuals homeless. The truth is that we will have to balance very difficult competing priorities when individuals have been in hotels for a long period and may be in school or may have specific health needs, and a suitable offer is made elsewhere in the country but they do not want to leave that location. We will do everything we can to make sure that they can stay where they have local roots and so on, but that has to be balanced off. If there is a choice between them staying in a hotel in that area and going into suitable accommodation, I am afraid the priority will be to get them into suitable accommodation.

I recognise how this is going to be slated and tailored and all of the rest of it, but the truth is that we will do everything we can to take into account all those specific circumstances. The ambition is that nobody is homeless throughout this process, but we are going to implement our commitments to the people of Afghanistan. I do not make any bones about it and say that that is an easy thing to do, but we are going to throw everything we have at it, integrate these people into UK society, turn back on the flights and make sure we see through our duties to the people of Afghanistan.

None Portrait Several hon. Members rose—
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Nigel Evans Portrait Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans)
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Sarah Atherton, were you standing?

Sarah Atherton Portrait Sarah Atherton (Wrexham) (Con)
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My question about the devolved Administrations has already been answered.

Nigel Evans Portrait Mr Deputy Speaker
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Thank you. I call James Sunderland.

James Sunderland Portrait James Sunderland (Bracknell) (Con)
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I thank the Minister for his statement. Does he agree that it is entirely right that we do all we can to support those who served alongside British forces in Afghanistan, and that it is right to distinguish in law between those who come here illegally and those who come here by invitation legally, so that we can do more for those on the ARAP scheme?

Johnny Mercer Portrait Johnny Mercer
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My hon. Friend is right; there is a fundamental difference. As he will know, there are veterans, service personnel and people working in the civil service who are sat around lunchtime tables this afternoon and would not be here were it not for the actions of this cohort, and we have a very specific duty to them. We have to balance that against competing demands, but we have made our commitments to this cohort of people. I have outlined today our clear and significant commitment to see through our duty to them, get them out of hotels and make sure we honour our commitments.

Maria Eagle Portrait Maria Eagle (Garston and Halewood) (Lab)
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The bridging hotel in my constituency is still full, and about half of the 375 or so people there have been there since the evacuation. One reason why they have not been able to find alternative accommodation or it has not been found for them is that there are some big families, and there is not suitable accommodation for them. What particular provision will the Minister make for those families? I have heard a rumour that that hotel is to close to the Afghans in August, but I have had no letter and no communication from the Government or any Department. Can he confirm, perhaps outside the Chamber, when the hotel in my constituency is due to be closed?

Johnny Mercer Portrait Johnny Mercer
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I am more than happy to meet the right hon. Lady and go over the situation with that hotel. No hotel has been given closing orders. I am more than happy to challenge these rumours, and that is certainly the case in that area.

We are increasing flexibility in how this money can be used. The £250 million going into the local authority housing fund can be used, for example, to knock through into the house next door to create bigger accommodation. I was talking to the Mayor of London about this this morning. We have the specific challenge of massive families in this cohort, and finding a house for a family of 10 is extremely difficult in the UK, so we have introduced flexibility to make sure this money can be used for improvements, so that we can see through our commitments to these people.

Nickie Aiken Portrait Nickie Aiken (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con)
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I have been very proud of the welcome that the Cities of London and Westminster have given to Afghan refugees, as they have to refugees from across the world for many centuries. When I visited two of the hotels in the City of London that were home to Afghan refugees last year, I was taken aback by the warmth of the hotel staff and by the City of London Corporation working with charities to provide English lessons in the Guildhall. Having seen how people were living in these hotel rooms, often with five, six or seven family members in one room, does my right hon. Friend agree that it is important they are helped to move on to permanent accommodation?

Johnny Mercer Portrait Johnny Mercer
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My hon. Friend is right. It is the easiest thing in the world to hurl accusations at this policy. The reality is that if we go and look at these hotels, we see lots of people living in the same rooms and children and families in accommodation that is unsuitable for a prolonged period. I make no apology at all for the moral case of helping these people move into permanent accommodation. I pay huge tribute to all those up and down the country in not only local authorities but voluntary groups and the veterans sector who have bent over backwards to welcome these people into their communities. All I am seeking to do with this piece of work that the Prime Minister has asked me to pull together is harness all that energy and all those offers, whether they are around employment or community groups, and make it work for the Afghan people, so that we can take the action to move these people out of hotels. It is the right thing to do for the Afghan people, it is the right thing to do for the British people, and I am determined that we will see it through.

Jessica Morden Portrait Jessica Morden (Newport East) (Lab)
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On Friday, I met an Afghan interpreter who had collected a list of 45 colleagues who put their lives on the line for our forces but are still waiting for the Government schemes to deliver, many in UK-sourced accommodation in Pakistan waiting for entry clearance visas from the Home Office for 18 months. He also told of those who found it quicker to resort to the treacherous and dangerous small boats journeys than to wait for this Government to deliver. How can Ministers stand here and defend this record?

Johnny Mercer Portrait Johnny Mercer
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This has been an incredibly dynamic and difficult situation over 18 months. We now have this plan. Anybody can apply to the ACRS or the ARAP programme from third countries, and that is what I expect people to do.

Vicky Ford Portrait Vicky Ford (Chelmsford) (Con)
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A hotel is not a home, and it is important to find permanent accommodation for these families, so I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement today. We also must not forget the terrible plight of the people in Afghanistan, especially women and girls: it is now 553 days since girls were banned from going to school, and women are banned from leaving their homes. In the meantime, senior Taliban members are sending their own daughters to school in other countries, so will my right hon. Friend work with Ministers in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office to tighten the knot of international sanctions and travel bans on the Taliban?

Johnny Mercer Portrait Johnny Mercer
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I have a very clear remit in this space, which is to deal with Afghans who are in hotels and get this pathway opened up. Clearly, we want to see through our responsibilities. Whatever has happened in Afghanistan is for the FCDO to comment on; everybody knows my views, which remain unchanged. We need to deal with the challenge as we find it now, which is far too many people in hotels and the blocking-up of that pathway. We are determined to make sure there is a professional, clear pipeline that people can use to get out of Afghanistan and into the UK, where we owe them a duty.

Dan Jarvis Portrait Dan Jarvis (Barnsley Central) (Lab)
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The Minister well understands the deep bond of friendship that exists between those who served and the Afghans we fought alongside, but he will also recognise that there have been very long-standing concerns from Members on both sides of the House about the processes that underpin both ARAP and ACRS. I have recently received reports of families approved under ARAP who are stuck in Islamabad, and are now being told that they are going to have to source their own accommodation in order to be able to get here.

The focus of the statement from the Minister so far has been on Afghans who are already here in the country, so can I ask him to say a bit more about the process for future arrivals? In particular, can he give an assurance that no one who is currently in Afghanistan or Pakistan who is either accepted by, or is eligible for, ARAP will be disadvantaged as a consequence of the policy announcement being made today?

Johnny Mercer Portrait Johnny Mercer
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Nobody who is in Afghanistan who is accepted by, or is eligible for, ARAP or ACRS will be disadvantaged as a result of what we are doing today. The situation in Pakistan, where we have over 1,000 people in hotels waiting to get to the UK, is clearly and demonstrably unacceptable. The challenge is that we cannot do anything about that if we have people in hotels in this country who have been offered accommodation and should have taken that accommodation, but are still residing in hotels, not allowing us to unblock that pipeline.

The hon. Gentleman knows my commitment on this issue, and I want to work with everybody on all sides of the House. I know that this Government have made commitments on this issue, but it is not an inter-party political issue: it is the nation’s duty to this cohort of Afghans who kept a lot of our constituents alive during the fight in Afghanistan. I urge all colleagues to work together to make sure that we can build that pipeline and honour our commitments to the people of that country.

Holly Mumby-Croft Portrait Holly Mumby-Croft (Scunthorpe) (Con)
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We certainly do owe a huge debt of gratitude to those brave Afghans who helped our armed forces and stood up for the values that we believe in, and I will not be alone in the House in remembering cases of individuals and families my office helped. My right hon. Friend is passionate about this, and he is an expert; frankly, his word is good enough for me on this. Is he absolutely reassured that this is the right thing to do?

Johnny Mercer Portrait Johnny Mercer
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I have no doubts that it is the right thing to do, otherwise I would not be stood here today. It is an incredibly difficult policy area, so nothing is black and white: there is no zero-sum calculation here where everything we do is going to sort this out, and there is no zero-risk option here. However, that is not a good enough reason to not try to see through our commitments to a very difficult population. I keep hearing “18 months” thrown at me from the other side of the Chamber, but this has been an unprecedented situation. Nobody wanted these people to stay in hotels for over a year. We have clearly opened up these pathways; we want to make sure that these people integrate into UK society properly, and I am absolutely convinced that this is the right thing to do.

None Portrait Several hon. Members rose—
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Nigel Evans Portrait Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans)
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Order. I have 16 people standing or thereabouts, so can we have shorter questions and shorter answers, Minister?

Munira Wilson Portrait Munira Wilson (Twickenham) (LD)
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The Minister said at least three times in his statement that we will honour our commitment to those who remain in danger in Afghanistan. While that may be true for him personally, I am afraid that as far as this Government go, that promise is utterly hollow. I challenge him to come to my surgery—to look in the eye those Afghans whose families have been left behind—and say that.

In particular, for three weeks in a row now, I have raised in this Chamber the case of five British children under the age of 18 who have been abandoned in hiding in Kabul. Their mother is an Afghan national; there is no safe and legal route for her to apply for. Their British father was blown up by the Taliban. When will the next round of the ACRS open up, or will the Minister admit that the Government have just given up on them?

Johnny Mercer Portrait Johnny Mercer
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My presence here today indicates that we have clearly not given up on these people. It is incredibly difficult to get people out of Afghanistan: nobody is happy with what has happened in that country. We have opened up ACRS and ARAP applications to third countries, and I encourage people to apply to that and to get themselves on the scheme. We will do everything we can to see through our duty to them.

Crispin Blunt Portrait Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con)
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Mr Deputy Speaker, given your recommendation for short questions, I have a number of questions that I will table as written parliamentary questions. Can I just say how much I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement, and the candour with which he has approached it and with which he is answering the questions?

I want to ask about one element. I have been involved in supporting someone who trained with me at Sandhurst a very long time ago, and in assisting that family. No doubt, there will be endless examples of others who are in the same position. I was slightly concerned about a scheme I offered to the Defence Minister, my right hon. Friend’s successor as Veterans Minister, to mobilise wider support for this particular community, not least engagement in creating the social housing referred to by the Opposition spokesman, the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey). I wonder why it was that people who could support that scheme were told that they could not do so in Army time.

Johnny Mercer Portrait Johnny Mercer
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If my hon. Friend wants to write to me, I am more than happy to address what has happened there, but I have to be honest with him: I am not overly interested in how we got to where we are. There are a number of reasons—it has been an incredibly difficult situation. The collapse of Afghanistan has been unprecedented in our generation, and seeing through our duties to these people has been incredibly difficult. I am not going to consistently go over and reheat that argument. Now, we have a clear set of commitments: we have a significant financial commitment to these people, and a duty to get them out of hotels and open up that pipeline, allowing people to come into this country. That is what we are going to do.

Stephen Doughty Portrait Stephen Doughty (Cardiff South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op)
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I pay tribute to the Minister for his service in Afghanistan, along with other Members of this House, but I really wish he had come with me a few weeks ago to meet Afghans living in a hotel in my constituency, because I genuinely feel that he would have felt a deep sense of shame and embarrassment about how this country has not done our duty to those people who served alongside us. Quite frankly, it is shocking and disgusting.

I want to leave the Minister with two thoughts: first, many of those people in that hotel had not had offers of accommodation at all. They told me how the offers had dried up, and many of them had been languishing there for 18 months. Secondly, many of them had qualifications and skills that were not being recognised in this country, so they could not get work. That Department for Work and Pensions programme is clearly not working, despite the intentions behind it, and I hope the Minister can clarify just how much additional support Wales will get to support those people into long-term accommodation.

Johnny Mercer Portrait Johnny Mercer
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I respectfully say to the hon. Gentleman that he has no idea of the depth of feeling of people like me for what has happened in Afghanistan. Some people have turned down offers of accommodation—that is a fact. No, it is not the majority, but it is a fact that some have. I spend a lot of my time with the Afghan community now, and I entirely recognise their feelings. I have one of them who I got out of Kabul, and who now works with me in Plymouth and lives there, so I fully recognise that. We have to deal with the situation as we now find it.

This Prime Minister has come into office. He very clearly recognises the duty we have to these people, so whatever has happened before, we are going to create these pathways and give them every opportunity to relocate and reintegrate into UK society. I look forward to the whole House helping us as we complete that endeavour.

Kevin Foster Portrait Kevin Foster (Torbay) (Con)
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I welcome the fact that my right hon. Friend is now dealing with this issue from the Cabinet Office. Having seen at quite close hand the co-ordinated cross-Government effort that delivered Operation Pitting, it is now necessary to do exactly the same to resolve the issue of bridging hotels.

My right hon. Friend will know from my conversations with him that I do think there was a chunk of naivety about how much housing would come forward in the latter part of September 2021. It is clearly now necessary to bring to an end the use of hotels: no family should have a hotel as their home for the long term. However, can he reassure me about what plans he has with local government? Some communities, including his own in Plymouth and communities such as Glasgow, have been extremely welcoming in stepping forward, but others have not. What challenge is he putting to those who have not? How does he see this working as part of a co-ordinated programme, and how will he ensure that this does not result in people turning up at the local housing office to try to get accommodation under the public funds they have access to?

Johnny Mercer Portrait Johnny Mercer
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That is a fair set of questions from my hon. Friend, and I pay tribute to him for his work in this area previously. Part of this is trying to create the environment where local authorities want to come forward. There will be a part that talks about increased funding. It was £21,000 per family settled over three years prior to today. That increases by £7,000 today. We are going to do everything we can to incentivise families. We recognise that this is a national commitment, but in London we can only do so much. We need to tap into the national feelings that we felt about Afghanistan when the collapse happened, to welcome these people into our communities and to make them a strong part of the United Kingdom.

Liz Saville Roberts Portrait Liz Saville Roberts (Dwyfor Meirionnydd) (PC)
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The Minister mentioned that half of this cohort are children. Members of the all-party parliamentary group for Afghan women and girls heard this morning from their headteacher about year 11 schoolgirls being moved tomorrow, six weeks before their GCSEs. They will not be found meaningful education arrangements for another 20 weeks. He must surely agree that integration must offer meaningful opportunities for Afghan women and girls, particularly in relation to education. That may be one of the reasons that families turn down accommodation. Will he also agree that the support provided by Wales’s youth organisation, Urdd, was pioneering in integrating Afghan families into Wales? Will he agree to work with the APPG, Urdd and Afghan women’s representatives in Wales to develop a toolkit to empower Afghan women and girls as they integrate here?

Johnny Mercer Portrait Johnny Mercer
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Clearly I will work with any group as we try to recognise these responsibilities. A big part of it will be setting up casework teams in every hotel. I will be visiting all the hotels, and I invite Members to come with me as we try to meet this challenge. The hon. Member talked about moving on Afghan families with children who are at a particular time in the school year. One reason we are looking to have this completed at the end of the summer is that we know people will be starting in a new academic year. There is plenty of competition in priorities as to when we should or should not do this. There are lots of issues around Ramadan, Eid, medical treatment and schools, but we have to try to plough a furrow that balances all those competing priorities, while realising the strategic aim of getting these people out of hotels and into communities across the country.

Clive Efford Portrait Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab)
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My constituent’s wife is trapped in Afghanistan. She applied for a visa to come as a spouse. It took eight months to get a decision, but the application was turned down because there was a discrepancy of 33p a month in his salary with what he had put in the original application. The way the Government are treating people from Afghanistan is a disgrace. We need to ensure that people are treated fairly and that their applications are looked at. When there is a genuine application, as there is in this case, the Government should make the right decision.

Johnny Mercer Portrait Johnny Mercer
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If the hon. Member writes to me about that specific case, I am more than happy to get back to him and help him.