Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con)
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the spending of the Ministry of Justice.
It is a pleasure to open this debate. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for facilitating it, and my colleagues on the Justice Select Committee who are in attendance today. May I welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Chris Philp), to his place on the Front Bench for the first time? It was good to see him at the opening of the legal year, although I hope there was not too much information overload from the practitioners he met. He is a fairly close London MP neighbour of mine, as well as a good friend, and I hope that this is the start of a long career on the Treasury Bench for him.
The Ministry of Justice has a portfolio that is varied, frequently overlooked and frequently under-appreciated. It employs—directly or indirectly—some immensely dedicated, talented and brave people, who frequently do not get the credit they deserve, but the work that it does is fundamental to any civilised society. The tests of a civilised society include how we deal with those who break the rules and offend; how we try constructively to prevent that; how we protect the public from further harm; and how, whenever possible, we seek to rehabilitate and turn around those who have transgressed, to make their life better.
That key part of the Ministry’s work largely relates to the criminal justice system, but the Ministry also deals with another part of the justice system and of our court system: access to justice in matters of civil and family litigation, and the myriad types of cases that go through the tribunals. All those are a key part of our social infrastructure, too. There is no point having rights if we cannot access them. Providing the means of accessing those rights, and of seeking redress when wrong is done, is equally important. That is sometimes overlooked a little in these debates.
The difficulty that the Ministry and all Ministers contend with is that it is a downstream Department: it inherits the consequences of things that started to go wrong much earlier in an individual’s life or career, and of things that went wrong under the remit of agencies outside the control of the Ministry. It therefore has greater pressures on it, and in many ways it cannot control those pressures.
Also, the Ministry is an unprotected Department. For a number of years, our Select Committee’s concern has been that the Department runs the risk of being in a near-perfect storm in that regard. I therefore welcome the Chancellor’s statement only the other week, which added significant sums of money back into the justice system. That is much needed. As we are able to open up spending a little in a careful and targeted way in areas where it can make a difference, we will bang the drum loudly for the justice system getting its fair share of that. I hope it will be recognised that spending should not be used as a sticking plaster: there should be opportunity for significant reform so that we spend the money more effectively and more cleverly. The most obvious example of that is the situation in our prisons.
On Monday nights when we are not in a packed Chamber, as we have been for the past couple of weeks, Members will I hope have had the opportunity to watch the Channel 4 documentary “Crime and Punishment”; if they have not, they can find it on Catch Up. It is a profoundly disturbing but very effective documentary by highly experienced journalists. What it found did not come as a surprise to any of us on the Select Committee, who have visited prisons over a number of years and seen the conditions there. The documentary focuses on HMP Winchester, which ended up in special measures quite early on in the series.
In the documentary, we see brave, dedicated prison officers struggling in almost impossible circumstances, in a crumbling Victorian building. They try to deal with people with a background of serious issues—violence; addiction or abuse of drugs, particularly new psychoactive substances; and real issues of mental ill health and self-harm. These are people who have committed crimes and are a threat to themselves as well as to the staff who are tasked by the state with keeping them in custody. They deserve better. We have a real concern that spend at the moment does not enable prisons to offer the safe environment that they ought to, as a basic. The previous Minister with responsibility for prisons, the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), very much recognised that, as does the current one, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for South East Cambridgeshire (Lucy Frazer), and the Secretary of State.
We need to get out of the vicious circle whereby we imprison more people than any other country in western Europe, but also have some of the worst reoffending rates. We are unable to turn lives around as much as we should, and, as a result, reoffending costs the economy about £18.1 billion, through direct economic, and indirect social and then economic, costs; we ought not to forget that. That is not a wise use of money. We need to get things safe, first of all.
I am glad to see that money has been put into the recruitment of more prison officers, which is critical. Of course, we must remember that getting experienced prison officers takes some time, and one of the really worrying things in the documentary was the number of dedicated young people who came into the service—a young prison officer called Ellie has been referred to quite a lot on Twitter—who do their level best and then leave. One young lad gets “potted” on more than one occasion, which means that the contents of the slopping-out pot—faeces and urine—are thrown over him. He is probably getting paid less than a barista in some parts of the south-east. What concerned me was that there did not even appear to be a proper exit interview for those people. We need a much more systematic strategy, as our Select Committee has suggested, for not only the recruitment but the retention of prison staff and experienced people. Money is part of that, but joining things up is critical.
While there has been a significant increase in the resource departmental expenditure limit budget, we also need significant capital spending. The estate has deteriorated appallingly, and the prison maintenance backlog now runs to many hundreds of millions of pounds. That cannot be sustainable, so I hope that the Government will, in addition to this year’s initial money, set out a greater programme both for the human side of prison assets and for the estate side. Many of us regret that the disposal programme has stalled somewhat, and that also needs to be looked at again.
I understand the reasons behind the Government’s desire to spend more money on catching criminals, recruiting more police officers and recruiting more staff in the justice system, but all those things flow down. The more we spend on policing, the more criminals we catch, which may not be a bad thing in itself, but that will have a knock-on effect on the court system that has to try those criminals, and then in due course on the probation service, which has suffered difficulties over recent years. I welcome the bold, radical changes that the previous Justice Secretary, the right hon. Member for South West Hertfordshire (Mr Gauke), initiated in grasping the nettle of some failed contracts, and I welcome the changes to the prisons themselves. The money that has been offered this year is worth while, but it needs to be part of a much more holistic plan. The money is unprotected, so we have seen a major reduction since 2010 to about 40% of the Department’s budget. That is not sustainable, and it must start growing back as the economic circumstances permit, thanks to the success of our coming out of the economic mess that we inherited.
As for the courts budget, Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service has virtually staked the house on an ambitious programme of modernisation and on the introduction of technology. That is not a bad or undesirable thing in and of itself, but I am worried that too much reliance is being placed on the introduction of technology, because it is ambitious and, frankly, Governments of all shades do not have the best of track records on grand technological projects. I do not want it to be seen as the silver bullet, because it does not deal with the question of physical access to courts. Some 256 court facilities have closed over recent years. In some cases, that is understandable and legitimate, but we have to think very hard about how that enables vulnerable court users in particular to get to court.
Again, this is not just about criminals, victims and witnesses, because it applies to the civil side, where people may be party to stressful family litigation, for example, and may be going through bad times in their lives. For someone who has to go to court to deal with a possession hearing because they have got into debt and are about to lose their home, having actual physical access is important to them. We also must ensure that we have decent facilities where the hearing can take place.
As you and others may know, Madam Deputy Speaker, I practised for some 25-plus years in the criminal courts in the south-east of England. When I have visited the courts that I knew and was fond of in those days, I have found pretty shocking conditions. For years—literally years—a corridor in the judge’s area of one of our major London Crown courts had a bucket to catch the drips from the ceiling. In the robing room at Southwark, the wall had not been repainted for so long that the telephone number scrawled up by the telephone—when people used those rather than mobiles—was still an old-fashioned number from before we had 0207 and 0208. That shows the lack of investment in our courts.
We cannot expect to recruit quality people to serve in our judiciary if they have to work in those conditions. A number of surveys have indicated concern about judicial morale. The principal issue is that judges often do not feel valued, and the working conditions are part of that. Neither is it fair to expect practitioners to be able to advise people properly if they do not have proper facilities to have a conference and instead have to try to find a corner in what might be a crowded room. We need much more significant investment in the day-to-day bricks and mortar of our Courts Service. The National Audit Office expressed concerns about the operation of the reform programme and noted the concerns about the growing maintenance backlog. We need to look at investment. We are prepared—I am glad to say that this is my party’s slogan—to “invest, invest, invest”. Investment in the structure and fabric of the system is massively important.
There are also places where a small amount of money would make a real difference. For example—this is the final thing I will say about courts—I welcome the work by the Criminal Bar Association to expose rather shocking statistics about the underuse of the court facilities we have. I used to practise quite a lot at places such as Chelmsford and Basildon. As of two days ago, only two out of five courts at Basildon, and only three out of six at Chelmsford, were sitting. The same applied not far away at St Albans, where two out of six courts were sitting. This is not the summer recess; this is the autumn, when our courts are normally at their busiest. At the same time, cases are being listed for trial in 2020 in relation to allegations from 2018. That is not just. There is truth in the old saying that justice delayed is justice denied. It is not fair on defendants or witnesses.
I regret to say that that is happening because of the arbitrary measures taken by Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service to limit the number of sitting days. We used to make up the slack in sitting days by having recorders—part-time, fee-paid judges—come and sit. Now, many recorders are not being asked to sit even the minimum number of days they are required to sit under their contracts. To my mind, that is pretty serious mismanagement by Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service, and I suspect our Committee may wish to look at that further. That cannot be right. That is not big money; it is just about clever use of the assets and resources we already have.
There are small things that would make a difference in other areas. Jurors are expected to come to court. A constituent of mine—one of my councillors—did jury service recently. The allowances we pay to jurors have not been updated in years. They actually end up out of pocket by the time they have forked out for their lunches. We cannot expect people to do a public duty and treat them in that way. That small change in a budget that, after all, is only 1% of total spend would make a difference to the quality of the outcome. The same applies to magistrates’ expenses. Magistrates are sometimes deterred from sitting in court centres distant from their homes because of the poor rates of expenses they get.
Putting more money into the legal aid system to ensure early access to legal advice in criminal, civil and family matters would not be a great cost in the overall scheme of things either. The Government have already shown a willingness to put more into the system. I urge them to continue with that, because access to legal aid often leads to the swifter resolution of cases: represented defendants’ cases are dealt with more swiftly, sounder advice is given, unmeritorious claims are not pursued, and meritorious ones are often resolved sooner. That would be investment to save in the long term.
I have given an overview, and I know other Members of the Committee will touch on general issues. Although this often is not the politically sexiest of topics, it is very important; it is as fundamental a part of our social services and our social fabric as anything else. That is why this chance to debate it and to hear the Minister’s response to some of the issues we raise is most welcome.