I beg to move,
That this House regrets the unprecedented backlog of more than 57,000 Crown Court cases, as well as record low convictions for rape and a collapse in convictions for all serious crime; calls on the Government to set up more Nightingale Courts, to enshrine victims’ rights in law and to introduce the proposals set out in Labour’s ‘Ending Violence Against Women and Girls’ Green Paper; and further calls on the Secretary of State for Justice to update the House in person on progress made in reducing the court backlog by 22 July.
As always, it is good to see the Secretary of State for Justice in his rightful place.
In 1915, Franz Kafka wrote “The Trial”, which was about a young bank official, Josef K, who was arrested and prosecuted by a distant bureaucratic state, despite having done nothing wrong. The novel chronicles his lifelong struggle and frustrations with the invisible law and untouchable court. Readers of Kafka are shocked by the grindingly mundane frustrations of Josef K’s trial, which goes on for an entire year.
As has been repeated so many times, reality is often stranger than fiction. Today, in modern Britain, it can take multiple years before victims of crime and the accused finally get their day in court. Simon Foster, the new West Midlands police and crime commissioner, recently explained that he had seen court trial dates set for as late as 2024. He was right to pin the blame on the mismanagement and reckless neglect of the justice system over the past decade. Disturbingly, he warned that the delays would put domestic abuse, violence against women and rape cases at particular risk of collapse, due, of course, to the vulnerability of the witnesses.
I do not enjoy having to repeat the damning statistics that show that the Government are failing the survivors of violence against women and girls—frankly, they break my heart, and they should break all our hearts—but it is necessary for the House to recognise the scale of the problem that the Government have created if we are to have any chance of fixing it. In 2019-2020, the number of rape convictions in England and Wales fell to a record low: just 1,439 suspects in cases where a rape had been alleged were convicted of rape or another crime—half the number three years before. I am sorry to detain the Secretary of State, but I repeat that, because it is worth listening to: just 1,439 suspects in cases where a rape had been alleged were convicted of rape or another crime —half the number just three years before. Fewer than one in 60 rape cases recorded by the police last year resulted in a suspect being charged. The public have lost faith in those who are supposed to keep them safe: seven in 10 women say that the Government’s efforts to make the UK safer for women are not working.
My right hon. Friend is making an excellent point. Would he agree with me that behind all of these statistics is often a desperate young woman not knowing what her rights are, waiting months for an independent violence and sexual assault advocate, and just in desperate straits, and that the House has to push harder on this Government to get it right? It is completely unacceptable.
I am really grateful to my hon. Friend for conveying the seriousness of this. A young woman who has been subject to a rape is frightened, lonely, and confused, and feels all sorts of things, and we have to look into our hearts and really ask: have we arrived at that place where that young woman is supported? This debate, in part, is to say that there is more to do. That ought not to be a terribly partisan statement. It is a statement that we have to do better as a nation by those young women.
Some 89% of women and 76% of men say that tougher sentencing for sexual harassment, sexual assault and domestic violence would also make women feel safer. Frankly, while the Government dither—and we have been surprised on the Labour Benches by the dither—Labour has had to step in. Today, we ask Members of Parliament from all parties to back our plans to do a few things: to make misogyny a hate crime; to increase sentences for rapists and stalkers; to create new specific offences for street sexual harassment and sex for rent; to reverse this Government’s record low conviction rates for rape, with a package of policies to improve victims’ experiences in the courts, including by fast-tracking rape and sexual violence cases, offering legal help for victims and better training for professionals; to remove legal barriers that prevent victims of domestic abuse getting the help they need through legal aid; to bring in new custodial sentences for those who name victims of rape and sexual assault; to train teachers to help identify and respond to the support child victims of domestic abuse need; to repeal the rape clause for social security claims; and to introduce binding national indicators to hold the Government to account.
The Opposition’s plea to the Government is to work cross-party on this initiative. I say to the Secretary of State again, and I have said it across the Floor of the House, that although the Secretary of State and I have a good relationship, I am worried that he sees this more as partisan in nature rather than us being able to work in a bipartisan way on an issue of such importance. His whole posture this afternoon—hands across his chest, looking away—does not convey what we typically understand of the status of his office.
I do not want the right hon. Gentleman to misinterpret any of my body language, but the reason for it is that he and his party had a chance to work cross-party by voting for the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, and he did not do that. All I see from him, with the greatest of respect, is dither and irresolution.
I am happy to explain again why the Bill makes it absolutely clear that those sentenced for serious offences including rape will serve longer in custody. For those serving sentences of four years or more the automatic release date will now be two thirds—it will no longer be half, which was of course the policy of the right hon. Gentleman’s Government—and that builds on the change we made last year to make sure that sentences of seven years or more for serious crimes including rape also met with the same term of imprisonment, namely automatic release after two thirds as opposed to half. That is a longer term of imprisonment.
I said in terms, in Hansard, that nothing in the Bill increases the sentences for rape, and the Secretary of State gets to his feet and talks about time served, not what my party is proposing, which is increasing sentences for rape. My suggestion is that nothing in his Bill increases the sentence length for rape, for sexual assault, for harassment or for stalking; just as the Secretary of State is legally qualified, so am I, and he has confirmed in terms that while his Bill deals with time served, it does not increase the sentences for rape.
I am absolutely delighted to come to the Dispatch Box at the invitation of the right hon. Gentleman. Let me remind him that in the past 10 years the average sentence for rape has increased dramatically, up to about 10 years, and the maximum is life in prison. I thought that he and I were interested in making sure that more and more perpetrators—[Interruption.] I can do without a running commentary from the hon. Member for Hove (Peter Kyle). The way in which we encourage people to come forward and make sure that their cases are heard is to encourage more and more people to plead guilty. I ask the right hon. Gentleman to tell me how any of these back-of-a-cigarette-packet measures that he proposes actually amount to anything when it comes to the effective prosecution and detection of people who commit rape.
Nothing in the Bill is specific on crimes that disproportionately affect women; in 296 pages the Bill does not even mention women once. We need an increase in the minimum tariff for those who commit rape and stalking. The Labour party is clear on that. I wish the Secretary of State would get beyond the hot wind—stop talking about time served and talk about minimum sentences. He has been a barrister for long enough; he must know the difference between time served and a minimum sentence. It is surprising, frankly, that I have to re-educate him on what a minimum sentence served is.
I have a lot of time for the right hon. Gentleman and respect him as a lawyer, as I respect the Secretary of State, but he will know that if we are going to have a discussion about specific nomenclature the truth is that, whether we talk about time served or minimum sentences, to say that we should increase the sentence for rape is not something that can realistically be done because the maximum sentence for rape is, as a matter of common law, life imprisonment. I accept that there is a legitimate debate to be had about how long that should translate to in practice through guidance and other matters, but it is not fair, I respectfully suggest, to talk about failing to increase what is already a life sentence; that is just a matter of law.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for seeking to assist his good friend the Secretary of State, but let me just say to him that all around the common law world—in Australia, in New Zealand, in the United States of America—there is a movement to increase the minimum sentences for rape. We in this party have looked closely at what has been done in those jurisdictions. I think in India the term has just increased to nine years because of the controversies around some rape cases there in the past few years, and in Australia it has increased to, I think, seven years. For that reason, it is our position that we should increase the minimum tariff.
I recognise that there is a legitimate debate around time served, and the Secretary of State has put his position in the Bill. I recognise also that, for heinous crimes, a whole life-sentence is appropriate. Indeed, we propose that in the Bill—someone who abducts, rapes and kidnaps a woman should serve a whole-life sentence. That is not currently in the Bill—we are proposing that. I will not refer to the controversial case before the courts at the moment, but the hon. Gentleman knows why we are proposing that. I say to him gently that this debate boils down to the value of a woman’s body and how seriously our party is taking it. That is why there is a serious legal disagreement between myself and the Secretary of State.
If we do not work cross-party on this, the Government will, in our view and in my view, be letting down victims of rape, domestic abuse, assault and violence once again. It is impossible to separate that failure of victims of violence against women and girls from the Government’s failures across the justice system as a whole. The backlog in the Crown courts is at an unprecedented level of more than 57,000 cases. It sat at 39,000 cases even before the pandemic began.
The backlog has been exacerbated by the pandemic, but it was created by the decision of this Conservative Government to close half of all courts in England and Wales between 2010 and 2019, allowing 27,000 fewer sitting days than in 2016. As the Secretary of State stares at the backlog figures, which worsen every month, does he now regret his Government closing the courts and telling those that stayed open to have so many days off?
My right hon. Friend is making an incredibly important point. There is no way that a party that has presided over the court backlog that we have—which has a huge impact on victims, who are sat nervously waiting to see perpetrators in court and then hopefully in prison—can say that it is in any way serious about being tough on crime, is there?
It absolutely cannot say that it is tough on crime when victims of crime face watching their cases collapse. I recognise that this has been a very pressured time—it is a pandemic—and the Secretary of State has had to deal with a range of issues in our prisons, in our probation, in our police and in relation to our judiciary. I recognise that, but in the end, the justice system has to serve victims of crime, and palpably and honestly, on any objective measure, things have got worse for victims of crime in our courts, and we need to do something about it.
First, the right hon. Gentleman might be interested to know that I spoke to our Crown court judge in Gloucester earlier this afternoon, who confirmed that the backlog has been lower month by month over the last six months, and it is lower than it was before the pandemic. One key reason for that is that it uses the court resolution process very effectively.
Secondly, although the right hon. Gentleman is making a strong pitch for why he wants to look after the victims of justice, where were he and his colleagues when policemen were getting injured in Bristol and police vans were being set on fire? Where was he when the windows of retail shops and banks were being smashed and people were clambering over the tops of railway trains, endangering life?
In 2010, 152,791 Crown court cases took, on average, 391 days to complete. In 2019, 107,913 cases took an average of 511 days, meaning that 30% fewer cases took over 75% longer to complete. The hon. Gentleman can add up—that is a poor record, on any analysis. He asks where I was. All I can say is that I am the shadow Secretary of State for Justice; I condemn the violence, but I do not think anybody expected me to be part of the policing.
Under the Conservatives, rapists, thieves, arsonists and those who commit fraud have never had it so good. Convictions for rape, robbery, theft, criminal damage, arson, drug offences and fraud have fallen to a 10-year low. The total number of convictions has collapsed from 570,000 in 2010 when Labour left office to 338,000 in 2020 after a decade of Conservative rule.
It is important that we look back to learn the lessons of this Government’s mistakes, but we must also look forward if we are going to fix this, and the solutions are pretty straightforward. We need more sitting days and more court space. Labour has called for a guarantee of at least 33,000 more sitting days. We are glad that the Government seem to have listened to our campaigning on this, but we also need to see the creation of more Nightingale courts if we are to end the delays. Will the Secretary of State promise, when he gets to his feet, to keep Nightingale courts open for longer, as well as to open more of them, to reverse the delays?
To address the crisis that victims are facing, the Government’s priority must be to introduce measures to reverse the backlog and to tackle violence against women and girls, but we must do more than that to protect the public and keep victims of crime safe. More than a quarter of all crimes are not being prosecuted because victims are dropping out of the process entirely. One million victims every year are being failed by the very system that is supposed to protect them. On top of denying justice through delays, this Government have so far failed in the simple task of enshrining victims’ legally enforceable rights. The Conservatives have promised a victims Bill in almost every Queen’s Speech since 2016 and in their past three manifestos, but five years on, their Bill has still not appeared in Parliament. The latest farce is that the Government are promising to publish a draft. It is getting draughty here with all the hot wind!
Labour has its full victims Bill published, brought to Parliament and ready to go. This would put key victims’ rights on a statutory footing, including the right for victims to read their rights at the point of reporting; the right to regular information; the right for victims to make a personal statement to be read out at court; and the right of access to special measures, including video links at court. Similarly, Labour’s Bill would include a number of new protections for victims. Victims of persistent unresolved antisocial behaviour would be given support for the first time. We would introduce new sanctions for non-compliance with victims’ rights. We would introduce victim strategies with mandatory equality impact assessments. We would enhance the role of the Victims’ Commissioner. We would guarantee the equal treatment of victims with insecure immigration status. We would put a statutory protection on agencies to report concerns on child sexual and criminal exploitation.
These are not partisan issues, and any Member of Parliament who recognises that this is the right way forward should vote with us tonight. No more hot wind. No more getting up and talking about time served or defending a record. We know it has been tough—we are in a pandemic—but victims cannot wait, and we cannot have a situation in which the Justice Department in the Government is letting down that important relationship with the Home Office. I think that might be what is happening at the moment.
The mistakes of this Justice Secretary and his Conservative predecessors were closing courts, cutting police, cutting the prosecution service and the de-prioritisation of crime. This has led to a backlog that is unprecedented, delays that are forcing victims of crime to drop out, and inefficiencies that are letting dangerous criminals get away with murder. But the present Justice Secretary’s failures are more of inaction than of the wrong actions: a failure to address violence against women and girls even when we offer him the measures to help him to tackle it, a failure to protect victims’ rights even when we offer him a Bill that is published and ready to go, a failure to reverse the backlog in the Crown courts even when it is obvious that he just needs to encourage and create sufficient space.
Inaction can be just as costly as the wrong actions. Inaction is standing by whistling to yourself while the world around you burns. Inaction is ignoring the desperate pleas of victims denied justice. Inaction is complicity. The result is a justice system that has become Kafkaesque for victims, as well as for the wrongly accused. Arrests are slow, if they happen at all. If they are lucky, victims are given court dates that are many months or even years later. Trials are then delayed. New court dates are rescheduled, then delayed, then rescheduled, then delayed, then rescheduled, then delayed.
I ask the Justice Secretary and Members of Parliament from all parties across the House to end the inaction and vote with the Opposition today. Now is the time when we all need to step up, put aside any partisan differences and act.
It will be obvious to the Chamber that a great many people wish to speak this afternoon. Just for a change, we will not have a three-minute limit; we will start with a six-minute limit, which will reduce later depending on how long Members take to speak.
I thank the shadow Justice Secretary, the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy), for at least some of his remarks. I welcome today’s debate, which is an important opportunity for us to properly reflect on some of the serious issues that he quite properly raises. I can say at the outset that we absolutely agree with him when he talks about the ordeal of victims. The fact that this is nothing new is a matter of reproach for all of us. Can we do better? Yes, we can. Will we do better? Yes, we will. Are we taking action? Yes, we are—and it is there that, with the greatest respect, I take the gravest issue with his remarks.
To characterise my work or the work of this Government as somehow whistling or fiddling while Rome burns is a complete misrepresentation of the situation. Calm reflection and a look at the work that the Government have continued to do, well before the covid pandemic, will bear that out. I think of the actions that this Conservative Government took to address important issues of violence against women and girls. Many Members from the right hon. Gentleman’s party and other parties in this Chamber were involved as well—I readily and happily accept that —but it is a record of action.
Outlawing coercive control within an intimate relationship, an offence that we are now going further to expand; outlawing upskirting; creating a criminal offence of stalking, which I and other parliamentarians were involved with; outlawing revenge porn and now the threat of revenge porn; outlawing the so-called rough sex defence; dealing with the appalling offence of non-fatal strangulation—those are all achievements by this Conservative Government. Let us not hedge or make any qualification of that. It is a Conservative Government who have driven forward important action on violence against women and girls.
The right hon. Gentleman is right, however, that there is no monopoly on ownership of these issues. I do not want for one minute to convey the impression that somehow we hold the monopoly of wisdom on all things. I think it is right to gently, firmly and consistently point out that there have been many opportunities for us to work in a joint way. There have been times when that has been done; I particularly single out the approach that the right hon. Gentleman took on the counter-terror measures that the Government have introduced in the past year. That was an example in which we worked constructively and maturely together, but I hope he will forgive me for saying—well, I am sure that he will not, but I will say it none the less—that there was an opportunity to do that again on Second Reading of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, but the Labour party did not take it. Frankly, it makes it rather difficult for me to take seriously the words that come out of his mouth about working together when such an important opportunity to work together was missed.
What does the Lord Chancellor say to the 44% of victims of rape who walk away before the trial, fed up because the defendant got their legal advice when they reported it but they have had zero? They may have had a very nice police officer have a little chat and ring them once a month, but they have had zero, because victims are waiting months for the independent sexual violence advisers and months for their court date. They are fed up—44%. What does he say? Will he apologise?
Having met and talked, in a professional and now a political capacity, to many of the victims that the hon. Lady describes, I say this: an apology is due, and I give that, but action is due as well, and that is happening.
The hon. Lady talks about independent sexual violence advisers. From day one of taking office, I made the case consistently that the expansion of their important role was a vital part of my policy, and we have done that. In 2019, I put an extra £5 million into investing in ISVAs. We have now expanded that; the total that we are investing in increasing ISVAs as we speak is £27 million. That means hundreds more ISVAs who will be available to support victims of crime from the get-go. She is right: the evidence is clear that, where an ISVA is involved, the rate of dropped cases falls dramatically—by about 50%, in fact.
I take up the hon. Lady’s challenge and exhortation, and I say that this is work in progress but we are getting on with it—yet another example of the action that I and this Government are taking to deal with the heart of the matter. Of course, that is going to be followed up very soon by the important end-to-end rape review, which we will publish. That piece of work has, quite properly I think, considered and reflected on a very important judicial review launched against the Crown Prosecution Service that was dealt with earlier this year, and indeed on the representations of many groups in the sector, reflecting the important views of thousands of victims of the most heinous crime of rape. That review will be published imminently, and I can assure her that it will be a full and proper reflection not only of the problems that we have encountered but of what can be done and what will be done to help to remedy the situation.
I am not going to hedge or qualify; I am going to be absolutely frank about the fact that the current rates and numbers of cases being brought to court are inadequate. They do not reflect the reality of what has been happening to thousands of women and girls in our country, and we are determined to do everything we can to change that. That involves a change from end to end—police, prosecution and the court system itself. That is what we need to encapsulate and get right, and I can assure the hon. Lady that, when that document is published, it will be the fullest proper reflection of the important points that she is properly so passionate about.
My understanding from the judge of our Crown court is that there are ways to speed up the handling of the rape cases to which the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) so correctly referred. One of them, for example, is making the Crown court available for certain sittings at certain times as a magistrates court, so that a case can be heard in the magistrates court and immediately moved into the Crown court. That is a way of speeding up the whole process. Does my right hon. and learned Friend, who knows far more about these things than I do, agree that there are practical ways in which courts can work with the Crown Prosecution Service to speed things up so that these cases get heard faster?
I have the happy advantage of having spoken, I think, to that very same judge myself last week when I visited our Nightingale court at Cirencester. Indeed, my hon. Friend is right in several respects to highlight the important work being done in the western region to deal with the heavy case load. The proactive work that is being done by dedicated judges, prosecutors, defence lawyers and all court staff to come together to resolve cases that are capable of proper resolution and to identify and list those cases that absolutely need a trial has been a shining example of how to do it. Similar success has been achieved in Wales in eliminating and dealing with the so-called backlog, and we see that in other parts of the country too.
That is no reproach to those parts of the country that are facing a particular challenge. There is no doubt—the right hon. Member for Tottenham knows this from his constituency experience—that there is a particular pressure in London and the south-east, where there are still a great number of cases yet to be resolved. However, it is right to say that, in the good work that is being done, supported by investment from Government, we are seeing the sorts of results that my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) talked about. He mentioned potential ways in which—
I just need to finish the point, and then I will give way to the Chair of the Justice Committee. With regard to how the magistrates court and the Crown court can work together, the short answer is yes, there will be some further potential primary legislation changes. One or two visa matters are already dealt with in the current Bill before Parliament, but I am sure that the sort of uncontroversial change that ensures that the interests of justice are served and which allows magistrates to work more in synthesis with the Crown court will be one that the right hon. Member for Tottenham and Labour would wish to look at carefully and possibly support. I imagine that it would command his support, but I will not prejudge the position, obviously.
Returning to the matter of rape and serious sexual offences, does the Secretary of State agree that one key issue is that the best determinant of a successful conviction will be not what happens once it comes into the justice end of the system, but the quality of the evidence file that the Crown Prosecution Service has in deciding to bring proceedings, and ensuring, to avoid delay, that it is full and complete at the point at which it arrives in the Crown court? That is what needs to be tackled. Evidence to our Committee shows that much of the problem is delay at the investigation stage, failures in disclosure, failures to pursue proper leads and, sometimes, the failure to deal with victims, complainants and other witnesses sensitively. Is not that perhaps the area that we really need to concentrate on in a genuinely joined-up approach, as has been said?
My hon. Friend is absolutely correct about the important early stages of an investigation and the particular problem, frankly, of disclosure. Disclosure is a vital part of our system—it ensures fairness—but for many, particularly young women, who are faced with having to give up their mobile phone, in which their lives are stored, it is a very difficult choice. It is almost Hobson’s choice: give up your phone. What substitute do you have? Suddenly it is gone for months. Your life is on your phone. They are these sorts of choices. Women should not be put in that position—it is just wrong—and we are going to do something about that. I will not open up all the details with regard to the rape review, but the House can see my concern about the early stages of an investigation.
The right hon. Member for Tottenham and other Members on both sides of the House rightly talk about the length of time that it takes from a complaint to the outcome of a trial. There is no doubt that while the court process is a part of it, it is by no means the whole part and, very often, the wait has been for many months—and sometimes years—prior to the bringing of the case into court. If a suspect is remanded in custody, of course, the courts continue to work very hard to get those cases dealt with. There are custody time limits. There was a temporary increase to those time limits that I, through the consent of this House, ordered last year, which has now come to an end. It related to the pandemic and, rightly, I ended that, as it is such a serious measure when it comes to deprivation of liberty. However, I assure right hon. and hon. Members that, in cases where custody time limits apply, the courts have been getting on with the cases in a timely and proper way.
The issue has been those complex cases that perhaps involve many defendants—perhaps defendants on bail—which have had to take their place behind custody cases and which I accept have been taking too long to come to court. I watch the numbers, as the right hon. Gentleman knows—I share some information with him, of course, on a proper basis—and I take into particular consideration the length of time that it takes. I truly will not be satisfied until I see a significant drop in the length of time that cases take from arraignment and charge, when they come into the justice system, to final outcomes. But it is right to say that, certainly in recent weeks, there have been some encouraging signs.
I wish the Secretary of State well with reducing wait times. That is what we all desperately want to see and that is why I am so pleased that we are having this debate. Will he therefore tell us what he considers will be a success in reducing those wait times and when he expects that we will see them come to an acceptable level?
I will judge success—never “mission accomplished”, but certainly success—when I see the number of cases that take six months or longer dropping to well below 20% of all cases. That is my personal benchmark. I cannot give the hon. Gentleman a date when that will be achieved; what I can say is that there is now a sustained pattern in which the number of cases being dealt with in both Crown and magistrates courts is larger than the number of cases coming in. That, obviously, means one thing—a decline in the overall number.
The Courts Service’s latest published plan is to see the overall number of cases in the magistrates courts reduce back to pre-covid levels by the end of the year. Every sign that I have been seeing over the past few months suggests that that progress is sustained and sustainable. We should pay tribute to the magistrates, judges and all the court staff who are working so hard to make that real.
The pressures that we are under are all familiar to us in the House. I look around in this place and see so few people, and that reminds me of the challenge in courts. Imagine the difficulty of running a busy court where people are coming back and forth and covid coming into the middle of it all. The work done to make our courts safe, in accordance with guidelines from Public Health England and Public Health Wales, has been immense. We invested about £113 million in safety measures —from perspex screens right through to social distancing measures, plus the Nightingale courts programme, which is allowing us to create the sort of capacity needed to deal with the case load. Plus there is the commitment I made, to which the right hon. Member for Tottenham alluded, that there should be no upper limit on the number of sitting days that can be used by the Crown court.
In other words, the Government and I have clearly signalled to all involved in the system that all systems are go and only the inevitable constraints of the current covid pandemic and social distancing rules would hold back the sort of full-throttle progress that I would love to see. If we continue with the common endeavour of the vaccination programme—that race that it is so important to win—and continue to make progress, I am convinced that will be reflected in improved figures at our courts.
The Lord Chancellor is absolutely right to pay tribute to court staff, magistrates and judges. As he knows, I sit as a magistrate and have seen the work that has continued right the way through the pandemic. What he has missed, though, is the investment that the Government have made in technology. I have been able to sit here, in the House of Commons, and undertake justice procedures for Merseyside so that we can keep the process and the wheels of justice moving forward. That investment has made a significant difference, too.
I am grateful to be prompted by my hon. Friend, who anticipates what I was just about to say about the next limb of our investment, which is in technology. At the beginning of the pandemic, about 500 cases or so were being dealt with by way of telephone or remote technology across the whole of England and Wales. Last week, the number reached 20,000—just under half all the cases heard every week in our various jurisdictions.
That has not happened by accident; it has happened as a result of significant Government investment in the hardware and software so that the technology works as well as possible for all court users. We continue, through the £1 billion court reform programme launched in 2017, to evolve, refine and improve the technology. All the measures that we have invested in are supported by the biggest single increase in court maintenance in nearly 20 years—the £142 million that I announced last summer. That is further evidence of the concerted action that I and the Government have taken since the outset of the crisis.
Plans were outlined for recovery in the criminal courts in September last year—most notably, our commitment to create 290 courts that could be used for jury trials. But we did better than that: we now have over 300 courts that can be safely used for jury trials—and they are happening day after day. We published our plans for other court recovery, relating to other jurisdictions, in November. I can remember a time at the beginning of this crisis when there was a serious question as to whether the wheels of justice could carry on rolling at all, but at no time did we stop. Again, that is as a result of the application and dedication of everybody involved. The most difficult and troubling moment for all of us concerned in the system was the decision to stop jury trials at the end of March 2020. There was a two-month hiatus, but it did mean that in late May of that year we were among the first jurisdictions in the world to start jury trials again. That was a remarkable achievement and a testament to everybody who got involved in that endeavour. Clearly, that has had a consequence and an impact, and I do not seek to shy away from the reality of that. However, I can sincerely say to the House that our robust action—the investment we made, the multi-layered approach we are taking—is yielding the sort of results that all right hon. and hon. Members would welcome: the sort of outcomes for witnesses and victims that we all want to see. Can we do more? Yes, we can, and we are going to do more, not just in the ongoing work to recover from covid, but on the legislative framework, which I think we all agree needs to be enhanced.
One area of crime that has seen a significant increase during the pandemic is pet theft, with the number of dogs being stolen in Suffolk alone having doubled. I very much welcome the Lord Chancellor’s taskforce on pet theft. Does he expect that it will lead to legislation in the current Session?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who raises an important issue. Clearly, the abduction and theft of much-loved pets has caused real distress to too many people. During the lockdown, we have seen the rise in pet ownership, because of the comfort and company that much-loved pets bring, yet there is no doubt that there is an insidious market in the underhand sale of animals. Clearly, there is a wider issue here that needs to be looked at, which is why I was delighted to help bring together my right hon. Friends the Home Secretary and the Environment Secretary to form the taskforce. We are looking at legislative measures, whether they relate to enhancing cruelty laws, on which we have already taken important action, increasing the maximum to five years, or to looking at stamping out the trade itself, in a way that we did several years ago with regard to scrap metal, where there were a spate of thefts and real misery for many people. We are looking at this in great depth and we aim to come back in a short while with a report. If that means we need to legislate, of course we will do so.
I wanted to talk about victims. The hon. Member for Hove (Peter Kyle) is not in his place, but I wanted to pay a bit of a tribute to him for the work he did when he was in the shadow team with the right hon. Member for Tottenham. The hon. Gentleman has been consistent on these issues and I respect that, and I listened carefully to what he said. My proposed way forward of having, first, a proper and full consultation to make sure that this legislation is future-proofed and fit for purpose, together with the draft Bill approach, will give everybody the chance to really bring a cross-party flavour to what our deliberations should be, to make sure that any product is going to be the result of mature and careful deliberation, so that we are not just paying lip service to these issues and not just enshrining the victims’ code into law, important though that is, but we are looking carefully at how people, organisations and agencies are held accountable. That is the big question we all need to ask ourselves. Here is the challenge for the right hon. Gentleman and others in this House: we have to balance the important principles of independence of prosecutorial authorities and other agencies within the criminal justice system, with the clear and present need for victims of crime to feel that if something has gone wrong, not only can they go and complain to somebody, but there is an outcome they can be satisfied with—there is accountability for any failure or dislocation in the system. That is what we all need to put our shoulders to the wheel on. I am sure that, in the spirit of the exhortation from the right hon. Gentleman, he will take that away and consider the offer that I make for how we can create a truly transformative victims law.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that undertaking, and of course I will work with him on that. I am grateful that he paid tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Peter Kyle). I just remind him that my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer) gave us the first victims Bill and also takes this very seriously, so—how can I put this?—if my boss takes it seriously, I take it seriously, and I am happy to work with the Secretary of State to deliver that victims Bill. We all know that we can do more for victims.
To add to the number, the Prime Minister, too, takes this very seriously. It is his absolute wish to see the quality of support given to victims to be the best in the world, and that is my ambition. I know that it is the ambition shared by Labour too, and I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman.
On the need for changes, I am absolutely focused not just on legislation but on culture. The way in which we approach violence against women and girls has to improve. I have mentioned the important action we have already taken. The new strategies to be published this year on violence against women and girls and domestic abuse will help all agencies to drive the step change that we need. The independent review that I will undertake with regard to the sentencing of domestic homicide cases is a vital part of that, so that we can better understand sentencing practice and consider the need for change. In the context of some of the proposals from the right hon. Gentleman, that review will be very important when it comes to the overall impact of any changes, however well intentioned they might be. I talked in some of my interventions about the important changes that I would commend to the House with regard to the Bill that is currently in Committee. I have also mentioned the end- to-end rape review.
As the new super-courtrooms are brought into service, one at Manchester and one at Loughborough, that will further enhance the ability of the system to deal with some of the larger, gang-related offences and multi-handed defendant cases that have been a real concern to all of us who want to see justice being done. As we future-proof legislation to allow more easy use of virtual hearings throughout the process, this is an example, again, of the Government putting those who use the service first—the victims and the witnesses of criminal offences. Remember that a system is worth nothing if it does not genuinely serve the British public and create a sense of confidence that when people come forward with serious complaints, they will be dealt with properly, professionally and expeditiously. Those are the aims that I have. It is all about recovery, rebuilding and restoring our justice system.
While I absolutely take on board the proper observations made by Labour Members, I say this to them: everything I seek to do is in the spirit of genuine collaboration and co-operation. Justice is too important for us to just leave it to mere party politics. I hope that as the weeks and months go forward, we can move away from a spirit of confrontation and remember that the work that continues to be done by this Government in order to combat crime and to deal with an effective criminal justice system is never finished. I can assure this House that, with regard to my commitment, and the commitment of my ministerial team and everybody at the Ministry of Justice, we are working daily and tirelessly to achieve the goals that all of us would wish to see. Justice is beyond measure. It has been part of my entire adult life. I am privileged to be able, in my term of office, to work to achieve the goals that I think all of us would want to see reached.
Thank you; I was rather optimistic about the time limit. The House has to understand that we have had two lawyers battling it out here. They are normally paid by the hour and so it is understandable. In all seriousness, I would have curtailed the debate, but both right hon. Gentlemen took a significant number of interventions, so it has been a full debate. We start with a time limit of five minutes. I call Ruth Cadbury.
Thank you for calling me, Madam Deputy Speaker. Not being a lawyer, I will try and stick to your time limit; it should be a bit easier for me. It has been interesting to follow the Justice Secretary, but a pleasure to hear the speech of my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy). It was an honour to be on the shadow Justice and Attorney General’s team until a few weeks ago.
The Conservative party traditionally prided itself on being tough on crime, but its record of delay in tackling crime is nothing to be proud of. The central theme of our criminal justice and courts system has now become delay, delay, delay. A backlog of over 54,000 Crown court cases means a four-year wait for justice, and justice delayed is justice denied. That impacts not only on the victims of crime and their families, who often cannot move on with their lives, their work and often their mental health. A delayed and failing justice system also fails the accused and those eventually convicted and sentenced. We cannot hope to address the causes of crime without giving those caught up a realistic timescale for a court hearing and a decision, and for those convicted, a quick start on work to cut future reoffending. A slow justice system costs us all—failed trial dates or the financial and human cost of remand in custody and, for our communities, a lack of faith in the whole criminal justice system.
The fault of those delays does not lie with our courts or those working in them. I know, from visiting Isleworth Crown court, how tirelessly they are working to ensure that the courts run smoothly. No, despite the Secretary of State’s explanation, he cannot get away from the fact that the Government brought a sledgehammer down on our legal system, and have done since 2010. By 2026, half of all our courts will have closed. There are 27,000 fewer sitting days now than in 2016, there has been a 15% cut in the Courts and Tribunals Service, and, despite agency recruitment, a shortfall of 1,400 staff still remains. We have had cuts to legal aid, to policing, to specialist support, to the Director of Public Prosecutions and others.
The Government may say that court delays are due to the coronavirus, and that the Government are moving heaven and earth to fix them, but it is not, and the Government are not. At the start of 2020 there was already a backlog of 39,000 Crown court cases, with a backlog now of over 53,000. The Government need to be honest about the cause of the delays and then start to address the backlog. Labour is proposing a guaranteed 33,000 extra sitting days and more Nightingale courts.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham said, the Conservatives are failing to protect women and girls in the criminal justice system, with record low conviction rates for perpetrators of sexual violence and an epidemic of misogyny that makes women and girls feel unsafe. Victims are losing faith that the justice system will be there for them. The Government’s rape review was announced over two years ago and we are still waiting. Meanwhile, rape prosecutions have fallen to the lowest level on record and domestic abuse prosecutions have fallen by nearly 20%. My hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) pointed out that for every victim there is a cost. These are not statistics, and that is why Labour has put gender-based violence at the top of our agenda, and why we published a green paper on ending the epidemic of violence against women and girls.
Finally, I want to address the issue of how the justice system can better serve those killed and injured on our roads. The issue concerns Members across this House and is an issue for the all-party parliamentary group for cycling and walking, which I co-chair. So I ask, will the Government consider using the opportunity of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill to address some of these issues, including the lack of clarity over the distinction between careless and dangerous driving offences and the inadequate sentences for fatal hit-and-run offences, as well as for serious hit-and-run and car-dooring offences—and, finally, end the courts’ routine acceptance of exceptional hardship pleas from offending drivers who are seeking to avoid driving bans?
I look forward to hearing from the Government on the issues of road safety justice, on the backlog of court cases, on their victims’ Bill, and on their rape strategy, and I hope that they will vote for the Opposition motion today.
I am saddened by some of this debate, because I genuinely like and respect both my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor and the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy), who are committed politicians and committed lawyers. We missed a bit of the seriousness of the debate in some of the party political knock-around that inevitably happens in these cases. The truth is that this is a really important issue, and both of them have elements of force and truth in the cases that they make. There is actually more common ground than one might read from some of the noise in between. I would have thought that anyone who listened to the very reasonable approach of the Lord Chancellor would say, with respect to the shadow Secretary of State, that he was the wrong messenger to shoot at.
The Lord Chancellor, like me, has immersed his life in the criminal law. Between us, we have clocked up about half a century of doing the publicly funded, the unfashionable, and the rough end of the trade. It is not that we have not seen exactly the things that the right hon. Gentleman talks about on the ground. It is not that I have not seen or experienced the frustrations of victims when I have prosecuted offences that we were not able to bring to a conviction, or the difficulties in sitting in a police cell trying to persuade often troubled defendants who have committed very serious matters to accept the reality of the evidence. Those are things that cannot always be reduced to simple statistics. Behind the statistics of conviction rates and prosecution rates there are individual cases that are all fact-specific in every instance. It is not in the gift of any Government to guarantee a given rate of conviction or a prosecution for any type of offence, because the nature of the system is that an independent jury, properly directed by an independent judge, must come to a decision on the evidence that is put before it.
If the hon. Lady will allow me to develop my point, it is the point that I made in my intervention on the Lord Chancellor, which is that we need a much more whole-systems approach to this. The justice system can deal only with the evidence that is put before it. It is as good as the evidence that it has obtained. What is required is a much more holistic approach, with an emphasis on the investigation of not just serious sexual offences, but all offences, and that has not always been the case. I can remember when I started at the Bar, when complainants in rape cases and other serious offences often got, I am afraid, an unsympathetic understanding from the police force and the legal system. That has changed hugely. It has changed out of all recognition from when I was in practice, so there have been real changes, but also, as has been observed, the nature of the technology that we all use in our everyday lives makes issues such as disclosure all the more important.
We must not pursue targets at the cost of doing justice in the individual case either, and that balance is not an easy one to achieve or to articulate. We need to make that point really clearly and robustly. What is required, and where I hope that we can share some common ground, is that to achieve that we need systemic long-term investment in the system. Failure has been known to come from this side of the House—the hon. Lady and others know that I am not afraid to speak out and criticise my own party when I think that it has got it wrong. What I have found as Chair of the Select Committee and from the reports that we have done is that, over a period of decades—decades going beyond any Government and probably beyond virtually anyone sitting in this Chamber—there has been underinvestment in the criminal justice system. That is largely because it has never been a politically interesting, dare I say politically “sexy”—horrible word—or politically high-level agenda item. It has always been a Cinderella service that is downstream and has never had the attention that it deserves.
Both Front Benchers—my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor and the right hon. Member for Tottenham—are doing a lot to push the issues up the agenda. The Lord Chancellor has battled hugely and, I hope, successfully—I will continue to support him—to get more reinvestment in the system. To be frank, my own Government, of which I was a part, took out too much at one stage and adopted too transactional an approach. More money is being put back in, but the reality is that we have to have a consensus that it is important to spend money on our court infrastructure and important to ensure that investigation by the police, charging by the Crown Prosecution Service and the work of the courts are properly joined up.
It is also important that we have a functioning court system in which there is proper investment in capital and resources to make sure that the buildings and infrastructure actually work. I welcome, for example, the lifting of the cap on sitting days to deal with the backlog. I hope that the Lord Chancellor will be able to assure us that that will be continued indefinitely, until such time as we reach the sensible and realistic level of backlog to which he referred. We all ought to urge the Treasury to give him the funding to do that.
We then need proper capital investment in the prison system, which we have not even touched on, because if we are really to prevent more victims, we need to make sure that, as well as punishing and deterring, the prison system rehabilitates and reforms where necessary.
This is a massive topic and the time available does not permit us to touch on it all. I hope that this debate is at least a trailer, and I plead for a more consensual, less politicised and certainly longer-term debate. We need a more honest debate with the public about what our justice system has to do, what it should be for and what its objectives are on a much more long-term basis. It would be a real service if we in this House could take a lead on that.
As ever, I agree with a lot of what the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill) had to say. In particular, I agree with him that the Justice Secretary is an honourable man, and I applaud many of the things for which he claimed credit for the current Government and the steps taken forward.
Nevertheless, the reality is that my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) made a powerful case about the underfunding of our criminal justice system, as, indeed, did the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst. We have an underfunded justice system. If a person from Mars arrived tomorrow, he or she would recognise that there is no such thing as a joined-up criminal justice system. Importantly, there no such thing as an acceptable victim’s journeys through the whole process. There are too many areas where victims are let down.
Of course, there are some bright points. Rape is better investigated by the police today than it was in the past, but domestic violence is not always. In domestic abuse cases, people get the police officer on duty, who could be brilliant but could also be massively non-empathetic. That cannot be right. There is not enough money for training our police and we have to look at that.
Really important steps have been made on the protection of victims of domestic abuse, but we have an underfunded refuge system. Women in particular, but also men, are having to travel way outside their own area to find a place in a refuge when they flee domestic violence. Last year, something like 56%—or thereabouts—of victims of domestic abuse were turned away. That cannot be right.
Things go wrong in the prosecution system. An underfunded Crown Prosecution Service is simply not acceptable. The liaison between the police and the CPS is not strong enough. I have never understood why it is not possible to have—I wanted to see them in my own local police force—dedicated police officers who work all the time with the CPS to make sure that files are transferred properly and competently.
Within the CPS, the practice of barristers coming in late on and picking up cases without really knowing what they are until the day of the trial is unacceptable. A friend of mine was kidnapped and raped, but because the barrister decided it would be impossible to prove the charge of rape, the defendant got off scot-free. No other charge had been laid—the charge of kidnap was simply not available. That cannot be right.
When it comes to our court system, it cannot be right that, for victims and witnesses—and witnesses are often victims—not only are there delays, but the process is intimidatory. That is unacceptable. It cannot be right when cases drag on not only for weeks but for months. There must be investment in training but we must also drive through a joined-up approach to our criminal justice system that says, yes, victims and witnesses are central to it, not simply bolt-on extras. We have a brilliant sexual assault referral system in this country. We should treasure it, but we should fund it properly.
We all come to this place to speak for the people we represent and give a voice to those who cannot be heard. Today, I rise to speak on behalf of Georgia Williams, a Telford teenager, and her family. Almost exactly eight years ago today, Georgia suffered a brutal death at the hands of a sadistic killer, who repeatedly sought out young victims and groomed and stalked them as he pursued and finally executed a grotesque sexual fantasy. The perpetrator rightly received a whole-life term.
Georgia was 17. She was optimistic, she was fun, she was happy and she shone with life and energy. Full of hope for the future, she had her whole life to live, ambitions to fulfil and dreams to come true. Georgia epitomised what is so good about young people. Her parents, Lynette and Steve, who I have got to know over the years, reached out to me on hearing about the release of Colin Pitchfork because they know the grief and suffering that victims’ families experience and they want others to understand. They want others to know why life must mean life.
Some crimes are so abhorrent and offensive to the moral conscience that society cannot just be expected to accept their perpetrators back in our midst. Society is being asked to forget the crime, forget the victim and forgive the perpetrator. In the most grotesque and heinous cases, why should society be required to accept that the slate must be wiped clean? Why do we insist, just because a period of time has passed, that such crimes must now be forgotten? We are in this place as legislators. We represent the people who put us here and we need a Parole Board that operates under a legislative framework that gives the public and victims trust and confidence.
I thank my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor and his excellent team for their radical and reforming work. I particularly congratulate them on the action taken on automatic early release for serious sexual and violent offenders. That subject caused much heartache in my constituency and I am grateful for their work on it. I now urge my right hon. and learned Friend to focus on the role of the Parole Board and ensure that it has the full confidence of the public and victims.
No one can begin to understand the terrible grief and devastation that the Williams family suffered, not least because Georgia’s killer could have been stopped before he eventually targeted her. For any parent, losing a child is a tragedy from which they never recover, but to have a child taken in the horrific circumstances that Georgia suffered is a torment and despair that we cannot begin to comprehend.
I will end by sharing the words of Georgia’s parents with the House:
“To hear that Colin Pitchfork, who took the lives of two children for his own pleasure, is to be released, is an insult to the two young victims.
The impact of losing a child is devastating, this anguish is compounded when as parents, you know that those last minutes of your loved one’s life were spent in terror. These monsters destroy more than one life, they destroy whole families.
It has been 8 years of torment for me and my family since Georgia was taken. The impact on my mental health has ruined my life and in turn my family’s—there is no cure for our suffering. Based on my experience as a police detective, I believe Pitchfork will kill again, I’ve seen it all too often.
Victims’ families are forgotten in a short while, but the terror and chaos it causes in our lives goes on. It changes how we live our lives forever—we want to reach out to ease the extreme distress of other suffering families.
Please Lucy, do everything you can for the victims of Colin Pitchfork to ease their families’ suffering.
Keep Pitchfork in prison.
Life must mean life.”
I want to address the question of enshrining victims’ rights in law and discuss a particular group of victims: bereaved families and survivors of public disasters. I have been raising matters for and speaking on behalf of the Hillsborough families, some of whom are my constituents, since I was elected in 1997. On 26 May, the final criminal trial arising out of the unlawful killing of 96 children, women and men collapsed. There is now no prospect of anyone responsible for the gross negligence of South Yorkshire police on that day being held to account by our criminal justice system, nor will anyone be held to account for the subsequent police cover-up, in which police sought to deflect blame on to the victims and survivors of the disaster and away from themselves.
This has led to so much anguish and pain for the families and survivors over the last 32 years, as they have repeatedly had to defend the reputations of their wholly innocent lost loved ones and fellow fans. Despite David Cameron having apologised to the families and survivors from the Dispatch Box when he was Prime Minister in 2012 for the police cover-up, last week a defence barrister involved in the collapsed trial repeated the slurs about Liverpool fans on the BBC, and another denied that there had been a cover-up in an article in The Spectator. The very next day, an agreement by South Yorkshire police and West Midlands police to make payments and civil damages to 601 family members and survivors for the further psychological distress caused by that very cover-up was made public.
It cannot be right that these untrue claims are still made with impunity. Families should not have to spend 32 years defending the reputations of their lost loved ones. While this is an extreme case, there have been other disasters where the victims have been blamed or families have been unable to find out the truth of what happened and have been marginalised, ignored and not seen as central to legal and administrative proceedings. It seems likely that there will be more such instances in future if nothing changes.
It took the Hillsborough families 23 years of non-stop battling to have the truth of what happened to their loved ones acknowledged officially, 28 years to get correct inquest verdicts and 32 years in total until all the criminal prosecutions arising out of the disaster came to an end. That is far, far too long. The law needs to be changed to make provision for proper, bespoke support at an early stage for those bereaved in public disasters. I do not just mean legal advice. Once things go wrong, it is almost impossible to put them right. Things have to be done properly from the start.
There are a number of proposals that would make a difference, and I urge the Government to adopt them. The establishment of an independent public advocate—which, as the Lord Chancellor knows, I have a ready-made Bill to do—is key to preventing things from going wrong in the first place. It uses freedom of information and transparency—the principles underlying the operation of the Hillsborough independent panel—to prevent cover-ups from happening and to ensure that bereaved families are at the heart of proceedings. Measures in the Public Authority (Accountability) Bill on a duty of candour and equality of arms at inquests would help.
I hope the Lord Chancellor agrees that the law must be changed to prevent bereaved families in public disasters from ever again being treated like the Hillsborough families have been treated. I hope he agrees that that would be a fitting tribute to their 32-year campaign for truth and justice. As my constituents bereaved or affected by Hillsborough said to me when I met them after I was elected 24 years ago, we do not want this to happen to anyone else. It is incumbent on all of us in this place to make sure that it cannot ever happen again.
The Select Committee on Justice, of which I am a member, is working on reports on court capacity, legal aid and the withering of access to justice, probation, recovery from the disastrous privatisation experiment, the long-unresolved failings of the coroner system, and our crumbling prison system, in particular its effect on women, young people and the mental health of those in custody.
The Lord Chancellor’s priorities seem rather different: at the behest of a Prime Minister who has little respect for the rule of law, he is busy interfering with the Constitutional Reform Act 2005, the Human Rights Act 1998 and the independence of the courts—dangerous constitutional tinkering while the justice system grinds to a halt. The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill undermines fundamental civil liberties, while the further review of judicial review looks like an obsession in avoiding scrutiny, as we have seen again today with the findings of the judicial review of the Cabinet Office Minister’s conduct and yesterday with the exposure of that same Minister’s secret “clearing house” for freedom of information requests: bad priorities, and the wrong priorities.
We have heard about the backlog of cases in the Crown and magistrates courts and there are similar logjams in the civil court and tribunal systems although they are less well recorded. It is true that the Crown court backlog has been this high before, but then the court system was operating at a much higher volume and numbers of outstanding cases fell quickly. They rose again before the pandemic because of deliberate Government actions in closing courts and reducing sitting days. With the acceleration of the backlog in the past year, they lack the means to tackle it. Belatedly they introduced testing at court on a purely voluntary basis. They set up Nightingale courts, but perhaps a tenth of the number required, and a fraction of the number closed in the last decade. There are insufficient judges or lawyers to cope with the needs of the justice system because cuts in both legal aid and the CPS have left a skeleton service. Victims are waiting up to four years from offence to disposal. This is a question not just of quantity but of quality of justice. Memories fade, witnesses get cold feet, victims want to move on with their lives, trials collapse.
There is a lack of urgency and direction at the Ministry of Justice. The decision to spend £4 billion on new prison places while letting existing prisons decay, and the lack of facilities, of training and education, of proper healthcare and of basic living conditions in so many of our Victorian prisons are a disaster for inmates, for underpaid and overworked staff and for all of us. The failure to rehabilitate prisoners and to reintroduce them to society with housing and employment support is a recipe for recidivism.
It is only possible in these debates, and with the time we have, to skim the surface of these issues, but the inquiries of the Select Committee and some of the APPGs, such as the all-party group on legal aid, show the depth and complexity of the challenges we face. Unless the Secretary of State starts to look critically at his Government’s record, he will be just another Tory Lord Chancellor who has presided over the further decline of a justice system that once was admired and copied around the world.
The Government have been taking strong action to tackle violence against women and girls by delivering our landmark Domestic Abuse Act 2021, legislating to protect women and girls from serious violent and sexual offenders and ensuring they spend longer behind bars, legislating to ban upskirting, and delivering additional support for victims during the pandemic, ensuring that organisations and victims have everything they need. I am proud of the strong measures this Conservative Government have taken to improve our criminal justice system, but today I want to concentrate on the appalling decision made by the independent Parole Board to release Colin Pitchfork.
Pitchfork brutally raped and callously murdered two innocent teenage girls in my constituency 30 years ago. The young lives of Dawn Ashworth and Lynda Mann were horrifically cut short in the most violent of ways. There cannot be any worse sexual offences committed against women than raping and murdering them. The horrific nature of those crimes has left a lasting and deep impression on the collective memory of my constituents, particularly those living in Enderby and Narborough where these brutal crimes took place. The families and friends of Dawn and Lynda continue to endure endless pain and nightmare memories.
The Lord Chancellor will recall that I campaigned and lobbied his predecessor very hard in spring 2018, at the time when Pitchfork was due to have his first parole hearing. At about that time the Parole Board made another awful decision involving John Worboys, which caused outrage across our country. The victims of Worboys were rightly disgusted with the independent Parole Board’s decision. There was a widespread belief that the Parole Board had completely failed to safeguard women’s safety and had acted manifestly irrationally in choosing to release Worboys. The flawed decision by the Parole Board to release John Worboys eventually led to a new reconsideration mechanism; the rules were presented to the House as the then Government’s response to avoid another Worboys-type situation.
The independent Parole Board’s decision on Monday to release double child rapist and killer Pitchfork has caused widespread alarm; I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Telford (Lucy Allan) for referring to the Pitchfork decision a few moments ago. The new Parole Board rules have very infrequently been considered, and in some respects the Pitchfork decision is a real test of the efficacy of the reconsideration mechanism rules.
There is a strong and compelling argument that the Lord Chancellor does not need to apply the same stringent judicial review grounds in law. He is acting as an applicant, not as an adjudicator. The decision for him to take is whether to refer the matter back to the Parole Board for it to reconsider, not for him to decide the issue in its place. I end with a plea to my right hon. and learned Friend to exercise a discretion that this House gave his office for cases of this sensitive nature, and not to allow the high threshold for judicial review to obfuscate his ability to refer the case back to the Parole Board for reconsideration.
A point that I think we can all agree on is that victims should not have to wait. Throughout the pandemic, we have seen how difficult it is to accelerate justice. In May last year, Lord Brown, the retired Supreme Court justice, wrote in The Times that it was time to abandon jury trials. He recalled the experience of judge-only trials in Northern Ireland during the troubles and recommended that we temporarily pursue that route.
The right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) disagreed. On 20 June last year, he wrote:
“You don’t fix the backlog with trials that are widely perceived as unfair.”
He later came forward with his own proposal for “wartime juries” of seven people, which he thought might reduce the backlog by 15% to 20%. A number of practitioners disagreed, including Baroness Kennedy, who said that that was
“opening the door to sacrificing the precious way people in our communities contribute to something really important.”
Again and again, she has talked about the magic number of 12 people on a jury, which is what the Lord Chancellor has pursued.
I say that not to criticise any of the views to which I have referred, but because there are good, fair, sensible arguments for and against any of those options. All of them are imperfect, but all have at their heart access to justice and the execution of article 6 rights. I respectfully say that these delicate, nuanced considerations about delivering justice deserve more than the atmospherics of an Opposition day debate.
It is important to contextualise our backlog. It is striking how much better we are doing than equivalent jurisdictions. New Zealand has a population of 5 million and a backlog of 75,000. New York City—one city in one state—has a backlog of 50,000 criminal cases. It is important to look at the progress that we are making through the backlog. The latest figures published by the MOJ up to, I think, 25 April show that disposals are now at a level 5% higher than before the pandemic.
I think I understand the hon. Lady’s implication. Of course I am not suggesting that the backlog is dealt with, but the critical point is the progress that we are making through the backlog rather than the number itself. It is right to say that disposals now outstrip receipts and we are reducing numbers, which is something that I think we should be very proud of.
I also think that there is real cause for optimism in how remote hearings have been used. From a standing start, we saw courts embracing nascent technology, and in 12 months they have delivered everything from a 12-week trial in the High Court to a complex jury inquest in Kent, all of it online. These changes are becoming embedded. In the future, we will be delivering justice in a way that is more efficient, more economical and crucially, I hope, more swift.
I would like to spend a moment on the issue of justice for women. I echo the remarks of the Chair of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill), in that I think we do women a disservice if we reduce these questions to a political tit-for-tat, although I think the mood has shifted a little bit since the start of this debate. There are Opposition Members for whom I have a lot of respect on this issue, and they know that.
The Government have made good progress. Stalking, choking, revenge porn and rough sex are ugly crimes that have found their way on to the statute book, where they did not previously exist. Of course, we are not there yet, and it is a raw feeling to be speaking on this in the week when Wayne Couzens admitted to the abduction and rape of Sarah Everard, but that crime did not happen because of an absence of laws. In fact, Harriet Wistrich from the Centre for Women’s Justice gave evidence to the Home Affairs Committee this morning, where she said that the fact is we do not need more legislation. Her concern, which she expressed powerfully, is that the police are failing to implement what is already there. Very respectfully, when I read the Labour Green Paper, I saw almost no reference to police failings at all.
I also think that we as a House have to be honest. While young people can pick up a phone, click a few buttons and watch rape porn, we have a problem. While schools and universities, and even workplaces, tolerate or at least turn a blind eye to misogyny and harassment in their midst, we have a problem. When young people are living in families where they see perhaps violence and misogyny exhibited in the home, we have a problem. The justice system is the end point, but if we are serious about violence against women and girls, we owe it to the victims to work seriously and collaboratively on the causes.
The Government’s own figures show that the number of outstanding criminal court cases has risen by 15,918 since the pandemic began. Some of this is a consequence of covid—a consequence made worse by the Government’s slow action to introduce the Nightingale courts—but covid does not explain the huge backlogs that had already built up before covid hit.
It is completely unacceptable that the Government are using the pandemic as an excuse for the backlog and to obfuscate a much deeper problem. For too long, the Conservative Government have underfunded the whole of our justice system. Funding for courts and tribunals has fallen by 21% in less than a decade. The legal aid budget has fallen by almost 40% in the same period. This is completely unsustainable for our courts, their staff and professionals and, crucially, for those who are seeking justice.
Rape and domestic violence cases have been among those worst hit by the courts backlog. In the first three months of the pandemic, prosecutions for crimes against women and girls fell by more than half compared with 2019. Over 50,000 women reported being raped last year, but how many rapists were convicted? Fourteen hundred. Only one in six women report incidents of sexual assaults to the police, and as so many survivors of sexual and domestic violence are denied justice, is it any wonder that report rates are so low? Repeated delays to trials not only affect a person’s ability to provide evidence, but add hugely to the retraumatisation of victims. It is literally adding insult to injury.
Urgent improvements across the whole justice system should include specific training for police prosecutors and judges on how to handle these cases sensitively. Misogyny should be made a hate crime to help stamp out the abuse that many women face on a daily basis. The Government must finally ratify the Istanbul convention, which I have been asking for for a long time, and uphold internationally agreed standards for preventing violence against women. Justice delayed is justice denied. We must not lose sight of the human cost of this unprecedented court backlog and low conviction rates for instances of rape, and I urge all Members to support the motion tonight.
I think we all agree today that we need to tackle the court backlog, but I think what we have mainly heard from Opposition Members are just attempts to cast blame rather than new solutions. Let us take the Opposition motion, in which the only solution offered is more Nightingale courts. Call me naive, which Members may, but I thought the purpose of an Opposition day was to oppose something that the Government were doing, rather than to support the innovation coming from this Government, which is Nightingale courts. There is no detail on where they should be, how many there should be, how they should be staffed or indeed how much we should spend on them. Nothing at all.
A Nightingale court has just opened in Kent, thanks to strong support from the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Chris Philp) on the Front Bench, and also detailed support from the Department in terms of where it should be, exactly how we could get the right configuration of rooms so that we had the necessary custodial rooms and where we could find the staff for this important court. This kind of detailed, important work by the Department has led to us having 60 Nightingale courts, which will really make a difference and have an impact on speeding up justice in this country. That is in contrast to the Opposition’s motion today, which simply seeks to take credit for something that is an innovation from this Government.
I shall move on to other parts of the motion, having established that the first part is simply supporting the Government’s existing policy. Labour wants to introduce additional measures from the “Ending Violence against Women and Girls” Green Paper, which it produced. Some of those measures are constructive, and I think we should work together on them on a bipartisan basis, but I remember the debates during the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, and that was not bipartisan; there was a marked difference from the approach taken during the passage of the Domestic Abuse Act 2021, which was very different in tone and enabled us to pass a landmark piece of legislation. Claims of decriminalising rape are incredibly unhelpful and wrong. That is the opposite of the approach that we need to take to tackle this incredibly important issue.
The Government are doing a lot, as has been mentioned by many already. We have the Domestic Abuse Act, and the movement in the direction of pre-recorded cross-examinations will be incredibly important for helping the victims of rape and others, as will the ending of automatic halfway release for rapists, because I think the time that rapists spend in prison is important. There is also better protection for the victims of domestic violence. I urge Opposition Members to match their rhetoric with action. Bipartisan is definitely the way we need to go with this, but they cannot do that when they are making sensational claims on social media.
The criminal justice system is at the very heart of people’s trust in Government. When things go wrong, we want the police to be able to investigate effectively, we need the CPS to prosecute efficiently and we deserve a court system that provides a fair and, yes, speedy trial. I welcome this opportunity to examine the Government’s response to covid in our criminal justice system, as well as the longer- term challenges. Looking at the early stages of investigation, the Government have made big steps. They have already recruited more than 9,000 new police officers—on their way to 20,000—to improve detection and collection of evidence. They have also tackled overload in the CPS by recruiting 400 new prosecutors to reduce caseload crashes and improve performance.
However, the court system itself is a harder nut to crack. All of us who have worked in the criminal justice system will know quite how big a task it has been to get back up and running in a covid-secure manner, particularly when it comes to jury trials. The challenge has been the greatest in the Crown court with its larger trials and its need to accommodate jurors, but here the innovation has been enormous, with 302 covid-safe jury courtrooms constructed to date, as well as the famous Nightingale courts, 60 of them created from scratch. Across the board, massive investment in remote hearing technology has sped up pre-trial hearings, with 20,000 hearings now taking place remotely every single week. This is an innovation that will continue to pay dividends for the administration of justice long after this pandemic has passed into history.
Perhaps most of all, the courts system has responded to the need by recruiting 1,600 new court staff, a 10% increase to the entire service, to speed up delivery and get on top of the backlog. All this work has allowed England and Wales to be the first western country to restart jury trials, despite the pandemic. Sticking with full juries is the right decision. It takes longer to work through the backlog, but the facts show that the Crown courts have now caught up with weekly demand and started to accelerate past it in the past few weeks. The Government have put in place a plan of action and the results are showing in the week-by-week reduction of waiting lists.
There is still much to do, so the message has been sent to every courtroom that there are no financial constraints on courtroom sittings for the whole of this year, but I want to make one respectful suggestion, following the advice of my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill). It is that this opening of the purse strings should not stop until the waiting list has been reduced to a reasonable level for the long term.
The title of this debate is “Protecting the public and justice for victims”. Young people are part of the public, so I want to raise the issue of young people, particularly those imprisoned in youth offender institutions, secure training centres and secure children’s homes. I worked with children in care for over a decade, so this has been a personal interest of mine, and I am a member of the justice trade union groups.
The good news is that the number of young people imprisoned has fallen over the past two decades, to about 850 on average. The bad news is that it is not reducing reoffending by those individuals; 71% of them reoffend within 12 months of leaving a secure placement. In addition, although the number may be declining, the latest statistics on behaviour management measures, published in the Youth Justice Board report in February, demonstrate just how poor the behaviour management problems are in these institutions. The numbers on restrictive physical interventions and self-harm are at a five-year high. The system is failing young people.
We know that the right interventions work. If we can intervene at an early enough age, we can grow people out of crime. All the evidence points to the benefits of smaller institutions nearer to young people’s homes and communities to maintain family contact, and, in educational settings, to investing intensively to overcome past educational failures and maintaining educational opportunities for these young people.
Unfortunately, the Government’s new reform plan, to merge youth offender institutions, secure training centres and secure children’s homes into secure schools, flies in the face of all that evidence. We now know that the Government’s proposal is that autonomous trusts will run those schools, under the Ministry of Justice. The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill seeks to promote new charitable providers to expand youth detention, by the looks of it. The University and College Union and others have a real fear that that is simply renaming child prisons as schools under multi-academy trusts.
The fall in numbers gave us the opportunity to ensure that we could tackle youth offending effectively, rather than simply investing again in ineffective incarceration. We believe that simply renaming these institutions will fly in the face of all that is needed at the moment, so many of us are urging the Government to think again and work with civil society organisations, professionals and unions to design an effective system that is based on rehabilitation, rather than incarceration.
I was pleased earlier, when I intervened on the Lord Chancellor on the matter of pet theft, that he gave such a positive response about the intentions of the taskforce that is looking at that terrible crime and what measures can be put forward to deter it. I declare an interest: as someone who had never previously owned a dog, I was fortunate that my family took ownership of a beautiful chocolate-brown sprocker spaniel from Norfolk in February, just before lockdown. Obviously, we did not know that lockdown was coming, but I have huge sympathy with the many families who, in lockdown, desperately tried to get a pet and often had to pay over the odds. Of course, prices surged, which in turn inevitably attracted those with nefarious motives.
To give an idea of the scale, not only did the number of dog thefts in Suffolk double in the last 12 months, but a single raid by the police in Ipswich, on a Traveller site, resulted in the discovery of 83 stolen dogs. I believe that most of them have been returned to their owners, so there is a good news story there. However, my main point is that, to most people, their pet is a family member, and I hope that whatever measures we bring forward, we recognise that this is a traumatic crime, not just for the animal itself but for the family concerned. From social media and speaking to people in my constituency, I can say that the threat of dog theft has caused massive anxiety, and I hope that we strengthen the law so that we deter this heinous crime.
Another crime that is particularly relevant in rural constituencies such as South Suffolk is hare coursing. I received an update earlier from the wildlife team at Suffolk police, and I was struck by a fact that I hope the Justice Minister takes into account, because this is very much an MOJ issue. There were six convictions for hare coursing in the last year in Suffolk and the average penalty was a fine of £142. The key point is that, with hare coursing nowadays, we are talking about organised crime gambling many thousands of pounds. One hundred and forty-two quid is not going to stop organised criminals gambling thousands of pounds.
As I am sure the Minister knows, the problem is that hare coursing is not a minor matter anymore. It can often lead to violence, and certainly the threat of violence. Our farming and rural communities feel very, very intimidated by this crime and they are spending huge amounts of money protecting their land, protecting their sheds and so on. At the same time, it is inevitable that those caught up in this crime may well be the same sort of people who are robbing their farms of vehicles, robbing their GPS systems from their tractors, and so on.
I welcome that point. It just shows how much of an impact this has had. In terms of the law, farmers in my constituency are on a WhatsApp group where they share intelligence about potential hare coursing. The police are using a drone to find the perpetrators, who are themselves increasingly sophisticated, but the law that generally covers hare coursing is the Game Act 1831. In other words, despite all this technology, the piece of legislation covering it received Royal Assent a year after the first passenger steam railway came into being, and I suspect that it may be in some need of modernisation.
We have heard about some very serious crimes and I understand why there is such concern about the issues around rape and the victims of that crime. It is incredibly difficult and it is important that the Government focus on that. There are also crimes such as dogs being stolen and the theft of farm property, which perhaps do not sound as serious but where the wider impact in rural communities is still very significant. We want to see a signal from the Government—not just in police numbers, but particularly in sentencing and punishment—that those crimes are taken seriously and that at least the guidelines, if not the law, will be toughened accordingly to protect rural communities.
Opposition days are incredibly precious for the Opposition. There are so many things that our party could have chosen to debate, but I am really pleased, and I believe that it is of fundamental importance, that we have chosen to table this motion. We need to press the Government to do so much more to address the record-breaking backlog, and the important part of the motion about violence against women and girls is also very welcome. I hope that the Government, in the spirit in which my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) introduced the motion, will encourage Government Members to support it, because if there is going to be cross-party consensus on this, it would be a really positive sign to see the Government supporting this motion.
As we have heard, more than 57,000 cases are awaiting court time. The measures that the Government have so far proposed are utterly inadequate to address the backlog. The chief executive of Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service has said that the Government need 200 Nightingale courts to fill the gap and remove the backlog, but the Government have just 25 up and running. It is not just the buildings that are needed; the Government’s cuts mean that the service employs 2,100 fewer people than it did when they came to power.
We have heard about the impact that this has on victims, but I want to ask right hon. and hon. Members to consider my constituent, who I will call Ms C and who is watching our debate. She has been a long-standing victim of serious violence from her former partner. Her ex-partner was recently jailed for the fifth time. The court heard that he is a heroin and crack cocaine addict who is also extremely violent. He has left my constituent with injuries so bad that her sight is permanently damaged. On other occasions, she has had other facial injuries, been concussed and had her head split open. On one occasion, he forced his way into her flat, and imprisoned her and held her during an appalling ordeal. Prior to his imprisonment, they lived on the same street, and alongside the violent attacks that she has experienced, he has often made verbally aggressive and intimidating threats towards her when she has left the flat or he has seen her walking down the street. He was also jailed because he was guilty of attacking a police officer, attacking a nurse at the royal hospital, attacking another police officer when the police were called to the hospital and smashing up my constituent’s flat.
The council wants to evict this man when he gets out of prison, but it has told Ms C that it is likely to be over a year before it will be able to get a court appearance. She is now facing the likelihood, after all these attacks, of this person coming back to live on the same street. That is the reality of what court backlogs mean. When we consider the motion today and think about the steps that the Government are taking, nothing is more important for my constituent, and thousands more like her, than making sure that we get rid of these backlogs. Justice delayed is justice denied.
This has been an interesting debate. Clearly all our constituents’ lives have been hugely impacted by lockdown, but one thing that, I am sure, has struck us all is how communities have stepped up to support each other—that is true in respect of justice, as it is in respect of healthcare and social care.
I particularly draw attention to the work done through a project called OWL—the Online Watch Link. It brings together the Neighbourhood Watch CCTV cameras across my constituency and many other parts of England to support our local police services in producing evidence quickly and effectively, so that perpetrators of crime can be quickly apprehended and that there is then sufficient evidence to charge and convict them in the courts.
I have been particularly impressed at how, during this lockdown period, more members of the community—in my constituency and elsewhere—have been signing up to support the project. It has been instrumental in bringing literally thousands of charges, securing convictions for offences from burglary to some sexual offences and many offences involving theft and car crime. The more that we as citizens can support each other, the better, but it is also important that as a Government and Parliament we recognise that it is not just the criminal justice system itself but the communities that we are elected to serve that can support each other in bringing perpetrators before the law.
In due course, I would like to seek consideration from the Government about what more can be done to address the issue of the theft of catalytic converters from vehicles. That has blighted many dozens of my constituents and people across England. Perhaps the Government could bring used car parts within the remit of the laws on scrap metal so that we can ensure that those who steal and deal in those parts, causing great inconvenience and cost to people, can be brought to justice more effectively.
Finally, I express my strong support for the work being done on how we improve justice for young people; I am thinking in particular of secure schools. Having served as a magistrate, I am well aware of the frustration that many in the justice system feel about a lack of sentencing options that give young people a chance to turn their lives around when they have fallen within the remit of the justice system. It is welcome that the Government are bringing forward these proposals to give us a real chance, based on evidence from overseas and the Taylor review of 2016, of helping young people to turn their lives around.
Covid-19 and Westminster austerity simply serve to highlight the fundamental problem that Wales is the only nation in the UK without powers over its own policing and justice systems. Justice is devolved in Scotland and the north of Ireland, and there is no rational basis for Wales to be treated differently. Giving Wales powers over justice should not be simply for its own sake; it is a necessity to deliver real justice for victims and create a better, safer society. As Lord Thomas’s Commission on Justice in Wales report noted,
“there is no overall alignment of policy and spending which is essential if the criminal justice system is to be effective in reducing crime and promoting rehabilitation.”
That lack of alignment is starker than ever, with the Westminster Government pushing through the law and order policing Bill, which will do nothing to tackle the violent and squalid state of many prisons, aid rehabilitation or break the costly cycle of reoffending, which is estimated to cost £18 billion per year.
With the highest incarceration rate in western Europe, Wales cannot afford to lock more people up in prisons such as HMP Berwyn, where prisoner violence and assaults on prison staff increased by 143% and 25% respectively in 2020, or in the overcrowded Victorian-era Swansea prison, where 79% of prisoners report that they have a mental health problem, according to the prison inspectorate.
But there is an alternative. With the proper powers, we could build a holistic system that promotes protection and rights for victims, rehabilitation of offenders, and long-term prevention of crime. This would be brought about by integrating the justice system with Welsh social, health and education policy, and services alongside the growing body of distinct Welsh law. Last month’s Senedd election returned a super-majority for further powers and devolution to the people of Wales. It has a clear and strong mandate for the devolution of significant further powers from Westminster to Wales, which will have a real, positive impact on the lives of people across Wales. It is time to act and to deliver on that mandate. In today’s debate in the Senedd, Plaid Cymru is calling on the Labour Government in Cardiff to turn their rhetoric of home rule into reality and to deliver the stronger Wales and the stronger Senedd that the people have voted for by delivering on their manifesto commitment to pursue the devolution of justice.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. I regret the backlog of 50,000 cases. Of course, anyone is going to regret that, but frankly we regret the pandemic and we regret all the unprecedented challenges that all our Government Departments had to face as a result of the pandemic.
I find it interesting how I have noticed, or sensed, that Labour is trying to seem a little bit tough on law and order. It is slightly perplexing. This is a party that went into the last election with a manifesto pushing a presumption against any prison sentence for those sentenced to less than six months unless it was for rape or a violent crime. We should think about all the really incredibly nasty individuals who would have got off with no prison sentence as a result of that. I appreciate that Labour is under new management, so presumably we are going to see some changes—although it does not seem so, because of course its leader voted against the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which increased sentencing for those who attack and abuse our emergency services. Labour voted against that. It also voted against the tougher sentences for some of the serious offenders associated with that. Labour is not trusted on law and order; it is incredibly weak on law and order. That does not mean that we do not need to get tougher, though, so I am going to talk about that.
I am going to talk about one case, specifically, in my constituency, involving Richard Day, a constituent of mine who was walking home from a night out with his brother and some others in late 2020. He was set upon and attacked, unprovoked, by a group of young men. There was a punch to Richard Day’s neck and he died. As he was dying, they stood over him laughing at him and went through his pockets and took his belongings. I have spoken about this before in this place. The reason why I do so is that the headline is protecting the public and justice to victims. We have an example of that right here, because the individual who was found guilty for that act was sentenced to four years in a young offenders institution because of his age; he was 16 at the time. He was automatically let out after two years, and because he had 14 months on remand, in about nine months this individual, I assume, is going to be back out on the streets of Ipswich. Is that justice for the victim’s family? No, it is not, and it is something they are going to have to live with for the rest of their lives. Is that protecting my constituents, who, frankly, are wondering right now, is this man going to be back out on the streets of Ipswich in the not-too-distant future?
We have made some positive moves as a Government and there is a lot further to go. We need to look at the role of things like the Sentencing Council, which, as we have seen on pet theft, is so cut off from what the majority of people in this country want, which is tougher punishments for those found guilty of pet theft. Our judges, time and again, issue overly lenient and soft sentences that mean that many of my constituents have lost faith in the criminal justice system. We have to find a way of respecting the independence of the judiciary but at the same time bringing the actual sentences we see and what the public want to see closer together, because that is the kind of society we want to live in.
The pandemic has stretched our justice system and created an unprecedented backlog of 57,000 cases in Crown court, but the Government must recognise that the past 10 years of their Conservative mismanagement dismantled the justice system’s ability to respond to increased demand, and is undermining the delivery of justice and the safety of dedicated public sector workers.
The Government cannot blame the case backlog solely on the pandemic. Under the Conservative party’s watch, the backlog was at 39,000 even before the pandemic. As Kevin McGinty, then the chief inspector of HMCTS inspectorate, said to the Attorney General in March, the pre-covid backlog was
“due to years of underfunding.”
While we have seen the number of cases soar, the number of staff directly employed by Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service has fallen by 15% in five years. To plug the gap, the Government have had to rely on agency staff, but the simple fact is there are now fewer staff, working on more cases. During that period of sustained underfunding, the Government had a fire sale of magistrates courts. Between 2010 and 2020, 164 magistrates courts were closed. That amounts to more than half of all the courts in England and Wales, and equates to 27,000 fewer sitting days than in 2016. Even though the Luton and South Bedfordshire magistrates court in my constituency has remained open, since 2010 46% of magistrates courts in the east of England have been closed. This cuts to the heart of the flawed austerity agenda. It is all well and good to stress that £223 million was made from the sale of court buildings, but that has damaged the delivery of justice. The Government seem to know the price of everything but not its value.
Those seeking justice are now looking at waits of up to four years for their court trials. Such a long delay will impact victims’ recovery, as well as all witnesses’ ability to recollect events and give evidence in court. Does the Conservative party now regret the decision to close more than half the courts across England and Wales since 2010? The chief executive of Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service said that we need 200 Nightingale courts to eliminate the case backlog, but only 25 are up and running. It is not overstating it to say that without urgent action, the Government are losing the public’s confidence in the criminal justice system’s ability to serve the public and uphold the law.
Will the Minister, in his closing remarks, tell the House what assessment he has made of the impact of the backlog on the number of cases that are dropped as victims and witnesses withdraw from the process? What steps are the Government taking to speed up justice for vulnerable people who are victims of crimes such as rape and domestic violence? Finally, the justice system should not be run on the cheap, so has the Minister learned the lesson that drastic austerity cuts inflicted on the Ministry of Justice were a false economy?
Over the past year we have faced an unprecedented crisis—in our health service, in our economy and, yes, in our justice system, too. Unfortunately, a period of national crisis is not enough to deter criminals and, worse, many have sought to take advantage of those made even more vulnerable by the circumstances. As people stayed at home, the number of domestic abuse cases went up sharply over the course of the past year.
I commend the work of organisations like Eva Women’s Aid and Foundation in Redcar for their work to support victims of domestic abuse during this time. Home simply is not the safe place it is supposed to be for everyone, but the new Domestic Abuse Act 2021 will better protect victims while perpetrators will not only be brought to justice more quickly, but also with the prospect of being locked up for longer. There is more to do, and I thank the Government for listening to the voice of women and girls and extending the recent call for evidence.
I also congratulate the new Conservative police and crime commissioner for Cleveland, Steve Turner, who is holding a separate survey for women and girls in Teesside to respond to, so that we can use that evidence to get the right funding and resources to help women feel safe in Teesside. So far, more than 750 women have responded, which shows the strength of feeling and the worrying experiences that women and girls in Teesside face every day.
Sadly, knife crime claims all too many lives. I feel particularly sorry for the people of London, who were let down by a Mayor who clearly cannot get a grip of this issue. Knife crime is, of course, not limited to the capital; it happens every day, and Ministry of Justice figures show that Teesside is one of the most dangerous places for knives and offensive weapons in the country, highlighting our need for a violence reduction unit in Teesside. I pay tribute to the incredible work of organisations like the Chris Cave Foundation to deter young people from carrying offensive weapons of any kind. The organisation was set up by Theresa Cave after her son was killed in a knife crime attack 18 years ago; the anniversary of his death is on Saturday. She thinks the justice system is still far too lenient when it comes to serious crime, or, in her own words,
“The police do their job but there are far too many getting a slap on the wrist when caught with weapons. The courts need to take a far more serious view on this to make potential offenders think twice before”
picking up an offensive weapon. This must be our charge: to hear what victims are saying and ensure that our justice system does deliver when people need it; that young people are protected from harm; and that women and girls, and indeed everyone, is kept safe from dangerous criminals and abusers. I commend the Government for their work and thank them for what they are doing in this regard.
I am pleased that the hon. Member for Redcar (Jacob Young) mentioned knife crime, because as we have been speaking two youngsters have been arrested for a tragic knife crime incident yesterday outside a school—it can happen anywhere. Unfortunately, I think there might have been an increase in shooting as well, so across the spectrum of crime, from antisocial behaviour, where 1.5 million separate incidents have been reported this year, right through to rape, sexual assault and some of the most serious crimes, crime is up under this Government.
I thank the Justice Secretary for his gracious apology to the 44% of victims who walk away. The saddest thing as a constituency MP is to hear a victim of crime say, “I cannot stand this any longer. I know what he did to me was wrong, but I cannot face this any longer.” We have that on an epidemic scale in this country, which is why that vigil touched a nerve for every woman in this country. It is because we are sick of it. That is exactly why there is so much emotion around this topic. Whether we are talking about Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry, who were murdered in a disgraceful, heinous attack last summer, or the terrible circumstances around the Sarah Everard case, this touches a nerve because we know that our justice system is failing victims.
I want to see this improve, and I have made that very clear during this debate. I want to see an absolute seriousness in dealing with this, because it goes to the heart of who we are and the culture, and we must own this as a big problem within our society. I also wish briefly to thank the Justice Committee Chair, the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill), for saying that when he was a Minister he felt that the Government did take out too much, and the decade of austerity is not helping now.
I briefly wish to touch on the issue of perpetrators, because I am not really one of those people who just wants to throw the key away. When the prison system is failing so hugely, what do we expect but to have people coming out and wanting to create mayhem and more crimes? We need to make our prisons safe, decent and secure; to have education and training for prisoners, so that they can get a job on release; and to address addiction. Our prisons are full of people who are addicted to drugs but who have time on their hands. Why are we not providing high-quality addiction services, and training the staff and paying them properly so that they can look after the perpetrators? This approach would allow us to have the justice that we seek: justice for victims, as per the excellent manifesto that our Front-Bench team have produced, doing the homework for the Government, as ever; and, secondly, a proper prison system so that we can have justice in our society and a genuine reflection of us and our identity, and what we want to see in our society.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West). I am pleased to speak in this debate, not just as a Member of Parliament, but as a member of the judiciary. Through the pandemic, I have been to courts on Merseyside regularly as a magistrate, to hear issues being brought forward through the courts system. We have talked today about delays and problems, but it is incredibly important that we put on the record our thanks to the people who have worked all the way through the pandemic in the courts system to ensure that justice was delivered and is delivered in a timely fashion. In particular, let us thank the magistrates, who are, on the whole, volunteers. They did not have to go in, but they chose to get in their cars to drive to magistrates courts. We should also thank the judges, ushers and legal advisers who spent time in courts and had to adapt, innovate and work through with real determination to ensure that the wheels of justice keep turning.
Those who commit criminal offences did not down tools during the covid epidemic. Disputes between neighbours, businesses and family members continued to arise, and vulnerable children and domestic abuse victims, in particular, still needed support and time in the courts. Having sat in many domestic violence courts, I know that, when requests were made by the police, magistrates were there to deliver those orders in swift order.
I am very pleased that we are seeing progress in the courts. Jury trials simply do not mix with a global pandemic, but the UK is the first western common-law nation to resume jury trials, and the Government have put a tremendous amount into ensuring that justice can be delivered. I particularly welcome—I mentioned this earlier—the investment in technology. That has really revolutionised the court system. There is nothing more frustrating as a magistrate than sitting and waiting for papers to be handed round in courts. Today, with a new computer system, things can happen in a much speedier and more efficient manner, so that is a tremendous investment.
Finally, I make a plea to the Minister to ensure that we have the resource readily available to support those with mental health and learning difficulties who are at this moment trying to navigate our court systems. I have a number of cases locally where disputes are causing great distress for my constituents. We need to ensure that these people are not just talking to screens. The benefits of the complex cases court for those suffering mental ill health are invaluable, and I encourage the Minister to look at what we can do to roll that out further.
These issues are far too important to politicise. I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor on the work that he has been doing through this global health emergency to ensure that the action required to protect the public and prevent the spread of the virus will also ensure that victims are protected and justice is served.
The justice system is failing endemically to live up to its name. As of last month, there were half a million cases outstanding in the magistrates and Crown courts, and some trials are now being listed for 2022. Victims, witnesses and defendants are facing years of waiting with procedures hanging over them. This is a crisis of justice. Even before the pandemic, Tory austerity cuts had brought the justice system to its knees, with the Ministry of Justice losing a quarter of its budget over the last 10 years. Resulting reductions in legal aid and the increase in court and tribunal fees have increasingly made justice a privilege of those who can afford it, leaving those who cannot with immense and, too often, insurmountable barriers. This has left the scales of justice weighed against ordinary people.
This sorry state of affairs was made crystal clear in the recent collapse of the Hillsborough trial, described as a “mockery” and a “shambles” by family members of the 96, who had fought tirelessly for justice. Will the Minister today go some way towards rebalancing the scales and commit to bringing forward the Hillsborough law, which would place a duty of candour on all public officials and require parity of legal funding for bereaved families and public bodies?
The pursuit of justice stretches beyond the courts, as well the Minister knows. It necessarily includes the ability of people to hold public authorities to account. However, the draconian measures in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill severely threaten our ability to do just that. By making it an offence to cause “serious annoyance” or “inconvenience”, this Bill restricts our fundamental rights to freedom of assembly and expression, and effectively removes our collective ability to fight back against state abuses of power. The Black Lives Matter protests last year and more recent demonstrations in response to the murder of Sarah Everard shone a new spotlight on a pattern of violent crackdown by police on peaceful protesters that stretches back to miners protesting at Orgreave and elsewhere in the 1980s and beyond.
I ask the Minister: what does this Bill do to make our communities safer or bring justice closer to those families? Some of the most disturbing clauses attack the nomadic lives of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities. In Liverpool, we have a large, eminent settlement of GRT families living in Kirkdale, who face systemic discrimination as well as routine violence. These new proposals are discriminatory and potentially unlawful, and threaten increased persecution of these communities. The Government’s own consultation on extending these powers shows that even the majority of police respondents think that the crackdown is the wrong approach.
The fact that the Government have spent so much time and resource curtailing people’s basic democratic rights and freedoms to hold them to account, rather than focusing on overhauling our creaking and hollowed-out justice system, speaks volumes about their priorities. I call on them today to reject the authoritarian Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill and invest significant resources in balancing the legal system—
As has been highlighted today, violence against women and girls is endemic. It affects one in three of us in our lifetimes. From prevention to bringing perpetrators to justice, we need to be determined to do everything in our power to ensure that we tackle the underlying misogynistic attitudes that lead to violence against women and girls. We must ensure that victims feel able to report abuse and that they can trust the criminal justice system to enable them to gain justice.
Earlier this year, the Government laid out their law and order agenda in the mammoth Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, but despite the Bill’s size, there is nothing in it at all that even attempts to tackle violence against women and girls. The Crown court backlog currently exceeds 58,000 cases, which means that survivors of serious sexual assault and rape are having to wait years to go to trial. This long wait for justice meant that a record number of criminal cases collapsed last year, as more than 1 million victims dropped out before trials even began.
It is not just an issue in the courts. In England and Wales last year, more than 52,000 rapes were recorded by police, and only 843 resulted in a charge or a summons—a rate of 1.6%. That has led many survivors of rape and sexual assault to believe that the system is set up to work against them, not for them. The fact is that the police never investigate most sexual violence, because most sexual violence goes unreported. According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, just under 25% of sexual assaults are reported to the police—significantly less than other violent crimes. There are many reasons for that, but one often cited is distrust and fear of the police. We need an institutional overhaul.
We must do our utmost to ensure that victims and survivors get access to the support that they need. It is essential that the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill be amended to ensure that the criminal justice system works for survivors of gender-based violence. For the last five years, the Government have promised a victims Bill in the Queen’s Speech, but like the rape review, it is still nowhere to be seen. Giving women and girls who are victims of gender-based violence more rights would go a long way to preventing them from dropping out before trial, as would fast-tracking rape and serious sexual assault cases through the police, the Crown Prosecution Service and the courts.
Seven in 10 women say that the Government’s efforts to make the UK safer for women are not working. This Conservative Government must put ending violence against women and girls at the top of their agenda. I urge colleagues across the House to vote for the motion today because, in the words of my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy), we need to step up, end this inaction and stop failing women and girls.
Justice cannot be brought without first apprehension, then investigation and finally resolution. What we have witnessed over the past decade has been the considerable dismantling and diminution of our criminal justice system—the loss of 22,000 police from our streets; the closure of hundreds of police stations such as in Warwick, Hartlepool and elsewhere, making access to the police more difficult and meaning that more crimes go unrecorded; and the closure of half the courts between 2010 and 2019.
Across the country, as a proportion of all crime recorded by the police, violence reached its highest level in 2019-20 since comparative records began. Violence against the person increased in every police force across the country, and overall only one in 14 crimes led to a charge. Locally in Warwickshire, knife crime has quadrupled since 2013-14—a 300% increase in just seven years.
I want to focus on the failures of justice in relation to sexual violence and harassment and child abuse, as shared with me by constituents. Let me start with sexual violence and harassment. We see this Government failing to protect women and girls from violent criminals, which should be one of the first duties of any Government. With record low conviction rates of perpetrators of sexual violence and an epidemic of misogyny that makes women and girls feel unsafe, the Government are treating victims of violence as an afterthought. New research has found that seven in 10 women say that the Government’s efforts to make the UK safer for women are not working and consider Government action to be inadequate. Victims are losing faith that the justice system will be there for them.
In Warwickshire, there were 1,600 arrests for domestic abuse-related crimes between 1 April and 30 June, and 15% of all recorded crime is domestic abuse-related, yet still the police and crime commissioner is replacing all nine staff from its domestic abuse unit with police constables, who should be out on the street.
The crime survey of England and Wales estimates that 3.1 million adults were victims and survivors of child sexual abuse before they turned 16, which is likely to be a highly conservative estimate. Cases brought before courts are too few, and convictions are even fewer.
Tackling gender-based violence is at the very top of Labour’s agenda, by making misogyny a hate crime, increasing sentences for rapists and stalkers and creating new specific offences for street sexual harassment and sex for rent; time prevents me from going through all the details. With record low conviction rates for perpetrators of sexual violence and the epidemic of misogyny against women and girls, which makes them feel so unsafe, this Government are treating victims of violence as an afterthought. That is why I will be voting for our motion.
I am glad to see so many Members across the House here today to speak about the importance of ending violence against women and girls and what the Government need to do to ensure proper justice for victims. I am grateful to my colleagues, who have made some powerful points. The hon. Members for Telford (Lucy Allan) and for South Leicestershire (Alberto Costa) spoke about the fact that some crimes are so awful that the perpetrator should never be released; the hon. Member for Telford spoke about 17-year-old Georgia Williams, who was brutally murdered in her constituency, and the hon. Member for South Leicestershire spoke about Dawn and Lynda, who were raped and murdered as teenagers.
My hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) talked about the need to enshrine victims’ rights in law, which the Opposition have been pushing for strongly. My hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr Perkins) raised the case of his constituent, a woman who was horrifically injured by her former partner, but backlogs in the courts mean that he may end up living back on the same street as her. My hon. Friend brought to life the reality of the court backlogs with that example.
I am grateful for that intervention. That is really important, and it shows the Government’s lack of seriousness on this issue. This is so serious. My hon. Friend, along with my hon. Friends the Members for Jarrow (Kate Osborne) and for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western), made powerful points about how women who are victims of rape have lost confidence in the criminal justice system, and because of that, they are giving up on their cases before they even get to court.
Let me be clear: this Government are letting down victims of rape and serious sexual violence on every front. There is a 58,000-case backlog in our courts; rape prosecutions are at their lowest level on record; rape conviction levels are at a 10-year low; and domestic abuse prosecution levels are plummeting. Only one in 60 rape cases recorded by the police last year resulted in a suspect being charged, and the number of victims who pull out of their trial has more than doubled in the past five years. The horrendous figures speak for themselves: this Tory Government have completely failed victims.
When I have spoken to victims, they have told me that they often feel as though they are on trial when they report these crimes. They have told me how being left to wait years for their day in court leaves them in a form of purgatory, unable to move on from what has happened to them. Many feel that the justice system is working against them and not for them. That is a complete and utter failing by this Government.
The police and crime commissioner for the West Midlands, England’s second-biggest police force, recently warned that rape and domestic violence cases will be among the worst hit by the growing court crisis. He described how the backlog of cases
“undermines the credibility of the justice system”,
with cases collapsing owing to the lengthy delays that victims face, and said:
“It’s particularly domestic abuse, violence against women and rape cases that are going to be at serious risk”
of collapsing. With 44% of rape victims already pulling out before their cases get to trial and record low prosecution and conviction rates for rape, we cannot afford things to deteriorate any further. We cannot afford more women and girls to be continually let down by this Government. We cannot afford to wait any longer for action: enough is enough.
We have now been waiting for more than two years for the Government’s rape review and the date of publication has again been kicked into the long grass, with no action forthcoming from the Government. In that time, another 100,000 rapes have been reported to the police. Not only are there huge delays with the publication of the rape review, but the Minister who has direct oversight of it, the Minister for Crime and Policing, the hon. Member for North West Hampshire (Kit Malthouse), does not even know to whom he and his Department have spoken. When recently there was an urgent question on the review, the Minister was asked whether the review had directly consulted survivors as part of its engagement panel. He said that they had been, but the reality is that the review has commissioned no specific survey of rape victims and no roundtable meetings have been held directly with survivors of rape and sexual abuse. In the more than two years since the review was announced, how on earth has there been no direct contact with survivors? How can this Government say that they have put victims at the heart of the review when they have failed to speak to them directly? The views and experiences of victims must be at the centre of our efforts to turn the tide on record low levels of rape charges and convictions, but instead victims have been ignored throughout the entire process.
It is clear that at every single step of their journey, victims are being let down by this Government. The Government have no ideas and no plan. Labour has one—we have a plan. We have set out what we would do in our survivors’ support plan and our Green Paper on ending violence against women and girls. We would introduce tougher sentences for rape, stalking and domestic murder; review sentencing for all domestic abuse; and introduce whole-life tariffs for those who rape, abduct and murder a stranger. We would remove the legal barriers—such as legal aid and no recourse to public funds—that prevent the victims of domestic abuse from getting the help that they need. We would introduce a survivor support package to improve victims’ experience in the courts. The package would include the fast-tracking of rape and sexual violence cases, legal help for victims and better training for professionals to give people the help that they need. We would also bring in training for teachers to help to identify, respond to and support child victims of domestic abuse.
Will the Minister commit today to backing Labour’s survivors’ support plan? Will he introduce the indicators across the CPS, Ministry of Justice and police that are required to improve victims’ experience of the criminal justice system, as set out in our Green Paper? Will he commit to enshrining victims’ rights in law? Will he create more Nightingale courts to reduce the court backlog? And will he finally publish the long-awaited rape review?
This Government have let down victims on every front. We need to see how they intend to reverse the shocking deterioration in rape prosecutions on their watch, and how they intend to improve the experience of the criminal justice system for victims of rape and sexual violence, and restore it so that it works for everyone.
I urge every Member of the House committed to ending violence against women and girls, to protecting the public and to ensuring that victims get justice and that we have a criminal justice system that works for everyone to vote with us today and support Labour’s motion. The time for warm words is over. We need action. We need a plan. That is exactly what our motion today does.
It is a great pleasure to be able to close this evening’s debate.
The covid pandemic is truly unprecedented. It has affected every corner of our lives; from hospital operations denied, to schools closed, to businesses struggling, and even how Parliament itself operates, we have seen covid’s effects. The court system is of course no different; bringing people safely into buildings for trials and hearings, especially jury trials, is a difficult thing to do. It has required a Herculean effort over the last year and more to keep our justice system operating, and I would like to start by paying tribute to the judiciary, the staff of Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service, barristers, solicitors, the Crown Prosecution Service, the police, the National Probation Service and so many others who have worked tirelessly in extraordinarily difficult circumstances to keep our justice system running.
In doing that we have, as I have said, had to confront a Herculean task, yet at the beginning of this afternoon’s debate the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) suggested from the Opposition Front Bench that there had been inaction by the Government during this time; extraordinarily, that was what the shadow Justice Secretary said. Nothing is further from the truth, however. Impressive action has been taken in the last year to combat the impact of coronavirus on our court system: a quarter of a billion pounds extra spent on making sure our justice system can still operate; 1,600 extra HMCTS staff hired; 402 Crown court jury courtrooms set up, more than the target of 390; and a rapid deployment of remote hearing technology that has enabled 20,000 remote hearings a week, a 4,000% increase on the number before the pandemic.
The title of this debate is “Justice for Victims”. What advice would the Minister give me as a constituency MP when a young victim says, “I’m not going to pursue that case because I cannot give the next four years of my life to that man”? What is his advice when she says, “I’m just going to go and get my cousins to beat him up”?
I would advise any Member of Parliament to do everything they can to support victims in their constituency to pursue prosecution. I will talk in a few minutes about some of the measures we are taking to speed up the justice system further and help and support victims, particularly women victims and victims of sexual abuse and domestic violence, but we should all encourage and support our constituents. I know the hon. Lady would do that; I am sure she is doing it, as of course we all do, and I will discuss some of those measures in just a moment.
I was talking, however, about the action we are taking to ensure that justice is delivered and that victims like the hon. Lady’s constituent can have confidence. In addition to those 20,000 remote hearings a week, speeding up justice for people like the hon. Lady’s constituent, we now have covid-safe measures in 450 courtrooms. We have opened up 60 Nightingale courtrooms around the country. We have got super-courts coming to hear multi-hander trials. And to support victims such as the hon. Lady’s constituent we are spending this year across Government, not just in the MOJ, £300 million to give victims the support, encouragement and help they need, exactly as the hon. Lady was saying a moment ago.
These actions have delivered results. As my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Laura Farris) said in her excellent speech, despite these difficulties the England and Wales jurisdiction is leading the world in court recovery. Many jurisdictions have barely restarted jury trials. We restarted jury trials in May of last year, and we were the first jurisdiction of our kind to do so. Backlogs in other jurisdictions are far higher than ours when we adjust for size.
Talking about our jurisdictions, in the magistrates court—let us start there—the outstanding caseload is dropping now by about 2,000 cases a week. The outstanding caseload at one point, at the height of the pandemic back in the summer of last year, went up to 525,000. As the shadow Justice Secretary said in his remarks, it is now back down to 460,000. About half of the extra caseload caused by covid has now been removed, and every single week it is relentlessly going down further. That is thanks to the work of our magistrates, such as my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (Andy Carter), who sits on the bench in Merseyside. I pay tribute to him and his colleagues for the work they have done in reducing that outstanding caseload in magistrates courts week in and week out.
The Crown court is obviously more difficult because jury trials and pandemics do not very well mix, and the number of outstanding cases has gone up. However, I can report to the House that the level of disposals—[Interruption.] I am coming on to that. The level of disposals now in the Crown court is running above the pre-covid level. It is running about 5% above the pre-covid level, as of the week commencing 25 April, which was just a few weeks ago. The most recent management data we have—it is not yet published, and is subject, of course, to verification—from the last few weeks now shows the outstanding caseload beginning to turn the corner and decline as these measures take effect.
There is so much time; it is only 6.46 pm. Could the Minister explain to me why there is a three-month waiting list for an independent sexual violence adviser, and why those individuals are not allowed to go into the courtroom when the victim desperately needs them to go in with them on the day? At the moment, they are not allowed into the courtroom.
I thank the hon. Lady for her comment. For the very reasons she mentions, we are currently recruiting a large number of additional ISVAs—independent sexual violence advisers. A lot of extra money has gone into this in the last year, and the recruitment is well under way. Those ISVAs do provide vital support to victims to make sure they are able to give their evidence.
I have outlined the action we have taken—the substantial action we have taken—and the results that it is delivering. But we are not resting there; we are doing more. In this current financial year, the Lord Chancellor—my right hon. and learned Friend has just joined us—has made it clear, as has the Lord Chief Justice, that Crown court sitting day numbers will not be a limit to listing. We have given a clear signal to the judiciary to list as much as they possibly can without limitation, and I am sure that our country’s judges will be listening to our proceedings this afternoon and will list cases accordingly.
We are also going to continue opening more Nightingale courts, and we are going to have some super courts to hear multi-hander cases. Of course, I am delighted that, following the energetic and effective campaign by my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Laura Trott), Kent is one of the most recent places to have a Nightingale court opened.
We heard a little bit of commentary about the state of our justice system prior to the pandemic, and reference was made by several Opposition Members to the outstanding caseload of 39,000 cases prior to the start of a pandemic in the early part of 2020. It was suggested that that level of outstanding cases was shockingly high, but what none of the Opposition Members chose to mention or chose to remember was the fact that in 2010, when the last Labour Government left office, the outstanding caseload in the Crown court was not 39,000, but 47,000—a great deal higher. I am proud that it was a Conservative Government who got that outstanding caseload down by 12,000 compared with our Labour predecessor prior to the onset of the pandemic.
We also heard some commentary about convictions and about the state of the criminal justice system. The most reliable measure of crime is the crime survey; it is the only statistical measure recognised by the Office for National Statistics. The number of crimes recorded by the crime survey back in 2010 was 9.5 million. The most recent figures from a year or so ago show that that has declined by 40%, with the figure down to 5.6 million, so we do not need any lectures about the last 10 years from the Opposition, when crime under this Government has dropped by 40% according to the most reliable measure. Of course we want that to continue, and we are hiring 20,000 more police officers and 400 more prosecutors to make sure that that reduction in crime, as measured by the crime survey, continues.
We heard quite a few moving and important contributions during this afternoon’s debate on the critical issues of violence against women and girls and of rape, and I thank the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves), for her thoughtful speech on this, as well as the many other Members who contributed to this discussion. I would like to start by addressing the question of sentencing for rape, which was raised by the shadow Secretary of State for Justice, the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy), in his speech. The maximum sentence for rape is life, and judges are free to sentence up to that level. The right hon. Gentleman asked about the actual sentence lengths that are being handed down. The sentences that are being handed down for adult rape have increased in the past 10 years by two and a half years. They have increased from 79.2 months back in 2010 to 109.4 months more recently. The average sentence for men convicted of this appalling crime has gone up by two and a half years, and quite right too, because it is a despicable and appalling offence.
It is not just the sentence that is important; it is also important how much of that sentence is served in prison. We legislated by statutory instrument about a year ago, and we are legislating again now in the PCSC Bill to ensure that violent criminals, including rapists, get released automatically not after half their sentence, as was the case under the last Labour Government, but after two thirds of their sentence, to ensure not only that sentences are longer but that more of the sentences are spent in prison. That is the right thing to do, and I strongly support those measures.
Many Members have raised the issue of the inappropriately low rate of rape convictions. The Government fully acknowledge that the rape conviction rate is far too low and that action is needed. The hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge asked some questions about the rape review. I do not want to pre-empt it too much, but my understanding is that it will be published in days rather than weeks. It will comprehensively seek to address the issue of rape convictions. They are too low—there is no two ways about that—and through the rape review, we will work with those on both sides of the House to get the rape conviction rate increased, because that undoubtedly needs to happen.
Many steps have been taken already, but more are needed. I particularly draw the House’s attention to the section 28 rules about evidence. As of last November, all vulnerable witnesses have been able to give pre-recorded evidence at a very early stage in the process, including the cross-examination, in order to deal with exactly the sort of trauma that the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) referred to, and to get evidence recorded quickly so that the victim can move on. That has applied to all vulnerable victims as of November last year, and we are now piloting a further three areas where victims who could potentially be intimidated can record their evidence in the same way. That is an extremely important move.
More generally on violence against women and girls, a great deal has been done already, although of course there is more to do. Domestic violence protection orders were prioritised by the courts during the pandemic, and it was this Government that introduced new stalking offences and increased the sentences for them. This Government, with cross-party support, introduced the upskirting offence, did work on female genital mutilation, introduced and passed the Domestic Abuse Act 2021, and introduced the measures on non-fatal strangulation and the rough sex defence—action after action designed to protect women and girls.
However, more is needed and in the coming months, we will publish a refreshed violence against women and girls strategy and a domestic abuse strategy. There will be a review of domestic homicide and, of course, the Law Commission is conducting a review of hate crime, which will include misogyny. There has been progress, but we need to make a great deal more.
The Minister is being generous in giving way. Will he acknowledge the important work done through private Members’ Bills on those subjects? The way that he expressed it suggests that they were all the ideas of the Tory Government. If I am correct, the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) promoted a private Member’s Bill on upskirting and another Member had a measure on strangulation. Several of the Minister’s recommendations come not from the Government but from private Members’ Bills.
I made it clear that the measures had cross-party support. It is true that some of the ideas originated in private Members’ Bills, and we welcome that. The Government listens across the House and takes action. Therefore, when private Members’ Bills that had merit were introduced, such as some of those we have heard about, for example, the upskirting measure, we embraced them and got them passed. We can all, on both sides of the House—the Members who promoted the private Members’ Bills and the Government for embracing and passing them—be proud of that. As I said, much has been done, but there is much more to do.
I want to deal with one or two specific points. My hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge) made some important points about pet theft. As my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor said, a taskforce is taking action on that. My hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (David Simmonds) mentioned catalytic converter theft, which also plagues Croydon South, and I will take up his suggestion.
I want to pause on the moving and powerful contributions of my hon. Friend the Member for Telford (Lucy Allan), who recounted the appalling constituency case of Georgia, who was so awfully murdered, and of my hon. Friend the Member for South Leicestershire (Alberto Costa), whose constituents, Lynda and Dawn, were murdered by that terrible man, Pitchfork. My hon. Friend the Member for Telford also raised that case. The Government have of course seen the independent Parole Board’s decision of Monday to release that man. Thanks to legislation passed a year or two ago, the Lord Chancellor has the power to review such decisions and to ask the Parole Board to think again. I can confirm that the review of that decision is ongoing and will be concluded before the expiration of the relevant time limit. The Lord Chancellor is acutely aware of the case and is looking at it as we speak. I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Telford and for South Leicestershire for raising the case. I assure them that it is under active consideration.
It is clear that the pandemic has placed unprecedented pressure on our justice system as it has on so many parts of our lives, but we cannot allow the virus to stand in the way of justice. That is why we have taken action: Nightingale courts; £250 million; no limitation on sitting days; 1,600 extra staff; the roll-out of technology, and so many other measures. We will leave no stone unturned in ensuring that our justice system recovers.
Our justice system is the cornerstone of a civilised society. It is fundamental to keeping us and our constituents safe. The Government will do everything necessary to sustain, support and protect our justice system and victims. We have led the world in court recovery. That work will continue.
That this House regrets the unprecedented backlog of more than 57,000 Crown Court cases, as well as record low convictions for rape and a collapse in convictions for all serious crime; calls on the Government to set up more Nightingale Courts, to enshrine victims’ rights in law and to introduce the proposals set out in Labour’s ‘Ending Violence Against Women and Girls’ Green Paper; and further calls on the Secretary of State for Justice to update the House in person on progress made in reducing the court backlog by 22 July.
The list of Members currently certified as eligible for a proxy vote, and of the Members nominated as their proxy, is published at the end of today’s debates.