The previous debate finished a couple of minutes early, but as the proposer of the next debate and the Minister are both present, if Members are content, we will commence the debate.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the funding of the Crown Prosecution Service.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. Before I begin, I must declare my interests. I am a member of Wilberforce barristers’ chambers in Hull, but am not currently practising. My wife is a criminal duty solicitor with Williamsons Solicitors in Hull, and she is also a part-time judge. I thank the Criminal Law Solicitors Association, the London Criminal Courts Solicitors Association, the Bar Council and the Law Society for contacting me regarding this debate, and for very helpfully providing me with information, which I think will benefit this House.
Expenditure on the Crown Prosecution Service has been reduced significantly from £672 million per annum in 2009-10 to £487 million in 2015. That is a reduction of a massive £185 million per year. At the same time, the number of cases brought to magistrates courts is down from approximately 641,000 to 539,000. On the finances of the CPS, I understand that since 2010, some £83 million has been spent on redundancies, with £20 million of that spent on only 153 staff, or upwards of £131,000 per—senior, I suspect—member of staff.
What has been the effect on cases? The effect has been significant: there is a staggering 23% increase in vacated trials—cases that are due to go to trial but, probably on the day of trial at Crown court, are vacated for whatever reason. In my submission, the reason is often that the CPS is not prepared or ready. In my area of Humberside, 55% of cases are vacated, according to the Public Accounts Committee inquiry of May 2016; the lowest proportion of vacated trials was 11%, in Cleveland.
The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful speech. I refer the House to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. Is it not right that whether the CPS is ready at trial is down to several factors, and not only funding? In fact, the CPS’s ability to be ready at trial and to perform well has improved over recent years, in spite of funding not having gone up, as he rightly pointed out.
I will read out a whole load of stats and talk about what is happening in the profession in the real world—about what lawyers and solicitors from the defence, and barristers who prosecute and defend, are saying is really happening. The hon. Gentleman wants to pretend that everything in the garden is rosy. Good luck to him, but I have to disagree. I know what is happening, not least because my wife is a defence solicitor in Hull and experiences the pressure on CPS lawyers day in, day out—although at the moment she is on maternity leave. Only today I was contacted by members of the profession, and they described a scenario in which a caseworker burst into tears when sitting in the Crown court behind counsel. If the hon. Gentleman thinks that things are rosy, he is mistaken.
Similarly, I declare an interest: I am still a defence solicitor, and if I catch your eye later, Mr Hanson, I will speak about my experiences. I will probably share similar experiences to those of the hon. Gentleman. He does angry well and quickly, but he was actually asked a genuine question on clarifying the stats. There are lots of reasons to vacate trials, and they can involve issues beyond funding-related prosecution preparedness; that was what the question was about.
The hon. Gentleman is of course right, but I was less than two minutes into my remarks when the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) intervened. If I am allowed to, I will come on to clarify the points being made by the Government Back Benchers.
I refer the Chamber to my entry in the register. The statistic is this: in 2014-15, the Crown Prosecution Service spent £21.5 million preparing cases not heard in court; of that, only £5.5 million can be attributed to factors not within CPS control.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I will make that point myself. Excluding guilty pleas, conviction rates in magistrates courts and Crown courts are significantly down, despite the headline figure of an 80% conviction rate. I think the conviction rate in magistrates courts is about 50%, and in Crown courts it is about 25%, excluding guilty pleas. Since 2010, CPS staff numbers have fallen by a whopping 2,400. The CPS is suffering a brain drain and haemorrhaging experienced in-house lawyers, who leave for independent practice, or simply take the money and run.
On a serious note, I mentioned a caseworker bursting into tears in open court, clearly because of the pressure. I am told that the stress levels at the CPS are seriously high. Interestingly, a 2012 LawCare survey of the law profession revealed that more than 50% of the legal profession generally felt stressed, and that 19% were suffering from clinical depression, with more than one fifth of the profession suffering from mostly avoidable and preventable mental ill health. Stress at the CPS must be off the scale, particularly considering a recent Law Society survey in which 95% of respondents said that they were stressed at work.
Furthermore, in May 2016 the Public Accounts Committee inquiry found that
“The criminal justice system is close to breaking point.”
According to the National Audit Office report of March 2016, “Efficiency in the criminal justice system”, the number of cases outstanding in Crown courts had increased by 34% since 2013, and the waiting time for a Crown court case to be heard had increased from an average of 99 days to 134 days—an increase of about 35%.
In 2014-15, the Crown Prosecution Service spent £21.5 million preparing cases that were not heard, as the shadow Solicitor General, my hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds), helpfully said. What has happened to those cases and the £21.5 million? If memory serves, it costs just shy of £1,000 to prepare a case for Crown court—the CPS says that being trial-ready costs it about £1,000—and £21.5 million has been spent on preparing cases that got nowhere. One must assume that the evidential test had been passed, and that the CPS reviewing lawyer had determined that there was enough evidence—that is, on balance, more evidence than not, and a more than 50% chance of a successful prosecution—and that it was in the public interest to prosecute that case. Twenty-five million quid was spent on preparing cases that went nowhere. The Solicitor General might be able to correct me and clear the matter up, but I assume that that is down to cases coming to nothing. In the magistrates court or, worse still, the Crown court, perhaps the CPS lawyer just gives in for whatever reason. I do not know; I am guessing. I have no idea.
I am anxious to answer as many questions as possible. In the Crown court, cracked and ineffective trials that have not gone ahead for prosecution reasons have, as a proportion, fallen to only 13.5%. That proportion of the total is falling; it is important to bear that in mind when looking at the overall context. I hope that helps the hon. Gentleman.
That is a fair point, but nevertheless £21.5 million is a staggering amount of money to be spent by the CPS on preparing cases for trial only for them not to come to anything. It is easy to mention such figures, but we must have some thought and regard for the victims in the cases, who will be anxious for the case to make progress and to have their opportunity to give evidence for the prosecution, and desperate to find out what happens in the trial. In my submission, the victims suffer the most from all that. [Interruption.] I will not give way, because I have been notified by the Attorney General’s office that some Government Back Benchers have indicated a wish to make a speech in the debate.
Interestingly, Her Majesty’s Crown Prosecution Service inspectorate found that charging decisions were not correct in 18.2% of cases. There is clearly a problem between the police, who are either, in cases where they are authorised to charge a case without referring it to the CPS, authorising charges that they perhaps ought not to and probably not getting advice from a CPS lawyer, or—I say this carefully—perhaps not giving the full information to the CPS reviewing lawyer.
It would not be fair if I did not say that I have the highest possible regard for CPS lawyers individually. Prior to my election to the House, I prosecuted for a fair while from chambers, and I found that CPS caseworkers and lawyers had the highest professionalism. They were committed and extremely capable individuals who cared a great deal about the job they did. I pay tribute to each and every one of those CPS lawyers, who are under incredible pressure. I also pay tribute to the Director of Public Prosecutions, Alison Saunders, whom I know personally. When I was shadow Solicitor General and shadow Attorney General, I met her on a good number of occasions, and I know that the Solicitor General meets her regularly, too. I find the DPP very professional, extremely impressive and extremely committed to the task in hand. Unfortunately, she is under considerable pressure, but she does the very best in difficult circumstances.
The decisions that I referred to should have been reviewed by a Crown prosecutor prior to the charge being authorised, but—this is a staggering figure—in 38.4% of cases, decisions were not reviewed before the case was first heard at a magistrates court. Prior to being elected to this place, I practised as a junior. I was the one who prosecuted for the CPS. Before my next day in the magistrates court, if I was lucky—sometimes it was on the morning—my clerk would give me a big, black CPS bag containing files for the next morning. I would go home and prepare 10, 12 or 15 files for trial. It would often take me through the night. All night long, I would drink large quantities—[Interruption] —of coffee, the Solicitor General will be rather relieved to know.
I would go into the courtroom the following morning to find that witnesses were not there, police officers were not available, shift patterns had changed all of a sudden, reviewing lawyers were unavailable, and the caseworkers who were available on the end of the telephone were not in a position to make any decisions. The defence, who were keen to crack the case and put it to bed, might offer me a section 5 public order offence, rather than the section 4 offence that had been charged. I would read the file and think that whoever had authorised the section 4 charge had been optimistic, to say the least, and would want to drop it in preference for a section 5 charge, which would be easy enough to get home and get a conviction for, but no lawyer would be available for me to speak to.
That was then. I have not been in a magistrates court to prosecute—I have recently been in one in a pro bono matter—since 2010. Things were bad enough then, but they are getting worse. Things are much worse now than when I was on my feet in magistrates courts before I left Wilberforce chambers in April 2010.
Some 38.4% of cases are not reviewed before they first come before the magistrates court. In reality, that means that if the prosecuting lawyer has been really lucky, they open their file and they have their witnesses ready, they have interviewed them individually, they have checked that what the police say in their statement is what they are about to give as evidence and is correct, and they are ready to crack on. But then they find that things are not quite right. The charge is probably not correct, in truth. Whoever has reviewed it probably has not done so very well, or things have been kept from the reviewing lawyer that are particularly important to their charging decision. The fact that 38% of cases are not reviewed means that when a prosecuting lawyer goes in to prepare cases for trial, nearly half of them will not even have been reviewed by a CPS lawyer. They have one arm very definitely tied behind their back.
I have kept Members long enough, but given that Government Members will say that everything is great, I want to talk about what the profession says—what individuals at the Bar say about their experience in the CPS. It would not be right for me to name people, but this is from an experienced CPS prosecutor of 30 years’ call:
“CPS hesitate to instruct QCs to prosecute even murders. Very serious, high publicity, or multiple murders will get a Silk prosecuting; otherwise not. The decision tree is on the CPS website”,
which I helpfully have in front of me. He continues:
“As a fairly senior junior barrister…I have over the last 5 years prosecuted some 12 murder cases. I have done this as single counsel. About 8 of those have been prosecuting against QC and a junior. One was of two defendants both with QC”
and their respective juniors. The CPS provided him with a CPS lawyer—a higher court advocate—in that case. He was against two silks, effectively—two Queen’s counsel —with their own juniors. I am talking about a junior not of the level I was at prior to coming into this place but of probably 20 years’ call, who has prosecuted and defended for an awfully long time and has a great deal of experience of being junior to leading counsel, and of prosecuting a murder on his own without leading counsel.
That CPS prosecutor says that, in contrast, judges
“have some influence on Defence getting a QC, and will say in open court ‘This being a murder case the Defendant should’”—
the judge of course is right—
“‘have leading counsel’ and the legal aid is then likely to be extended to cover that.”
In that scenario of a double-handed case with two defendants, why should the victim, whose loved one has allegedly been murdered, have counsel bringing the case for the prosecution against two leading counsel and two junior counsel? How does the victim feel in that scenario?
I hope it will not annoy you too much, Mr Hanson, if I talk briefly about some other cases that have been mentioned to me.
Order. Before the hon. Gentleman continues, I remind the House that the debate will finish at 5.30 pm. The hon. Gentleman has the floor, but other Members have indicated that they wish to speak.
I will be as quick as I possibly can be, but it is crucial that I mention what the junior members are saying. This person says:
“I often work in the magistrates court, where matters are unfortunately often in chaos so far as prosecutions are concerned. The CPS are dealing with hundreds of cases, often of a domestic violence nature and many of which are doomed from the start because Complainants had told the police in terms either that they won’t be coming or for which no statement has even been taken.”
He or she goes on to say:
“They do not appear to have such resources, either for these sorts of cases or indeed others.”
It is chaotic in the magistrates court. Another lawyer emailed me to say:
“The problem is not just money”—
the point made by the hon. Member for Cheltenham—
“it is doctrine, dogma and management double speak. I get six cases to prosecute in the magistrates at 4pm the afternoon before”
the case is due to be aired in court. He or she continues:
“Each of those cases will be defended by a separate lawyer who only has that one case to deal with. The hearing record sheets”
are not there, and all sorts of things are missing from the files. It is utterly chaotic.
I have got a huge number of cases that I could read out, Mr Hanson, but I will not annoy you by doing that. I want to give other Members an opportunity to tell us, if indeed they want to, that everything is rosy in the garden, despite the fact that £185 million per annum has been cut from the CPS budget.
The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner) was entitled to speak for as long as he wished, but we now have a limited time before I have to call the Front-Bench Members. I hope that Members can self-regulate on these matters.
It is a pleasure to take part in the debate. I declare an interest as a criminal defence solicitor. I have an interest in defence, but primarily an interest in the criminal justice system, which we all share. We need a good, efficient and effective CPS as part of the criminal justice system. That is good for all: for defendants, for witnesses, for victims and for public confidence. It is a collaborative effort, so in many ways it is important not to see this issue in isolation.
There are funding challenges—we could have another debate about the funding challenges for the criminal defence service and the challenges for the police and others—but there is a collaborative effort, which is why I welcomed the inspection by the Crown Prosecution Service inspectorate and Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary in 2015, which helped us to home in on some of the issues. Yes, one can look at the statistics on cracked trials, but when one looks deeper one sees, as the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner) said, the issue of the police’s charging decisions and the impact that has down the line. Getting it right first time was very much the NAO’s mantra in relation to getting value for money for taxpayers.
I will try not to take up too much time but I want to draw attention to the statistics. First, it is important to recognise that there has been criticism for some time. There is also the challenge of cuts. Back in 2014, the independent inspectorate’s report on the CPS looking at the period 2013-14 said:
“The background of continuing resource reductions is now having an impact on the ability of the service to deliver effectively across the whole range of its activity.”
That was then; now, we are looking at what the challenges have been to that. If one brings in the NAO report and other inspectorate reports, one sees that there is a serious challenge from cuts, but if one delves deeper, one sees other issues, including a large variation in performance across the country in the service provided to victims and witnesses. One cannot therefore look just at the money; one has to ask, “Why are there variations? How can we have a more uniform approach that provides a good service to all?”
There has been some progress. I will not seek in any way to cover over the cracks—there are serious challenges and serious problems. I go to courts and I see and hear them and the way they affect morale and confidence in the system. That is a collective challenge that is affecting the criminal justice system. Nevertheless, given some of the statistics, it is worth saying for balance that the proportion of effective trials in magistrates courts has increased from 34% in the year ending September 2011 to 39%. There has been an increase, although it is not enough.
On the issue that the NAO and inspectors have looked at time and again, yes, mistakes are happening, but they are happening through the currency of cases. Early decisions should have been made and what had gone wrong identified. No doubt, the anecdotal evidence provided by the hon. Gentleman can be repeated by the prosecutors. The fact that two thirds of cases still do not progress as planned shows that that needs urgent attention.
The reality, and what I have experienced myself, is that the most frustrating thing about funding challenges and staffing is that, when it comes to the need for an early decision, at court—or preferably beforehand—there needs to be an appropriate review. A review can take place before the door of court so that appropriate decisions can be made for the benefit of the whole criminal justice system. That is something that I think is not happening enough, and down the line, whether in the magistrates court or the Crown court, it leads to vacated trials.
More needs to be done, but during my 20 or so years of practising, there has been a sea change, not least in terms of the recognition of the need for reforms—that the present situation cannot continue. The only way we will get better value for money and better public confidence is by grasping the fact that, in particular, the legal system has been one of the last to come up to date regarding paper and the need for a digitised criminal justice service. That is not the only answer, but we know that when we are struggling to find where that advance information or that disclosure is, we ring up and try to find the duty officer, who then tries to get someone. Thankfully, those things are now part of the past. The future is proper digitisation, which can help in getting prompt disclosure and appropriate decisions made and should lead to early decisions. We are still not getting those appropriate early decisions. The report of the last joint inspection in 2015 made the point that too many police charging decisions were incorrect and picked up too late by the CPS in court. The fact that 38.4% of cases were not reviewed before court must be seriously challenged for the sake of the system and for the benefit of all.
I want to make some brief points on what could be done. I remain concerned about transparency and accountability in the criminal justice system. The decisions made, such as those made by magistrates on the mode of trial—whether the case goes to Crown court—are still not clear enough for everyone
There is variation between areas. There have now been improvements to crime mapping for victims, but we should look much better at justice mapping and the accessibility of justice in a given area. The challenge of less localised magistrates courts and less reporting and less public awareness of what is happening in local courts means that we need the digital service to map better what is happening in our areas to see the impact of decisions, going back to charging decisions and particularly to decisions made in court and their impact. That will help to build confidence and public perception that is not based just on anecdote or the latest scandalous headline in a tabloid.
Transparency is needed, but we also need accountability. One of the frustrations I feel on behalf of the defence service is that I am directly accountable if I make a bad decision—if I have not got my act together and got my witnesses together, or if I have mucked up in court, I will get it in the neck from a senior partner or others, and not least from the client—but I do not see that same accountability for the Crown prosecutor. There is accountability for the police officer handling his case and there is much more in the Crown court, but at the magistrates court, with a pile of cases, when something goes wrong and a decision needs to be made quickly that perhaps goes against the victim and against the interests of justice in the long run, the Crown prosecutor—strained and challenged though they and the system are—is not challenged and accountable. We do not allow wasted costs orders now because of decisions about publicly funded cases, so the Crown prosecutor does not get it in the neck about wasted costs and lessons are not learnt—it is not so much about berating that individual prosecutor but about the system learning the lessons. Is there a way to provide greater accountability for the CPS, particularly when decisions are made?
Can we recover more costs for the system through costs orders? Can we have more full costs orders in CPS cases, not just contributions to costs? Yes, there are those who cannot afford those, but there are others who certainly can afford to pay prosecution costs. Other agencies will apply for the full costs of a case, including the police enforcement costs; can the CPS introduce full costs orders? Can the CPS also benefit from successful proceeds of crime applications, and can that funding go to the CPS and those prosecuting agencies, rather than to the coffers of the Treasury and the Home Office?
I was not planning on speaking, but having heard some of the remarks that have been made, I thought I would briefly volunteer a few thoughts of my own.
I am surprised to hear that the hon. Gentleman did not intend to speak. I received an email that said he intended to do so.
First, by way of background, like the hon. Gentleman, I worked through the night to prepare long lists for the CPS, from 2002 to 2005. I went around the courts in Hertfordshire—going to the magistrates court and the Crown court, prosecuting and defending cases involving everything from rape to murder to terrorism offences.
I take this opportunity to agree with the hon. Gentleman that the calibre of some of the prosecutors and caseworkers in our Crown Prosecution Service is very high and stands up to comparison with any other prosecuting authority anywhere in the world. One thing I found disappointing was that prosecutors or caseworkers who were exceptionally conscientious or hardworking did not seem to get advancement any faster than people who were not quite as attentive. I thought that was a little unfair.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman on equality of arms. It is vital, particularly when dealing with a serious case, that the prosecution is able to show that there is equality of arms. It is therefore absolutely right, in a serious case, that silk should be instructed if they are up against silk. Where I begin to part company with the hon. Gentleman is on his bald assertion—made with the best of intentions, I accept—that everything can be attributable to funding.
I did not say it is.
Well, one might be forgiven for thinking that that was part of the assertion. If one looks at the figures from 2010, although the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that there has been a decline, I am afraid it is wrong to suggest somehow that there were no problems previously but there are now.
From my experience when I was in court, all too often the reason cases cracked, if there was a problem with the prosecution, was system failure. For example, if witnesses had not been warned, if dates to avoid had not been provided or if disclosure had not been served. Those were systematic failings. My hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) correctly made the point that systematic change can sometimes be as significant as financial change. The changes we are seeing to the digital case system are causing such an important step change in the quality of the prosecuting service that, for example, when one turns up at the Crown court, one can immediately see on the system that a disclosure has taken place. It provides for that in a far more efficient way.
Does the hon. Gentleman think that those “systematic failings”, as he puts it, are getting better because the CPS is experiencing a £185 million a year cut to its funds?
Let me make it crystal clear: of course I would like to see more funding for the CPS. There is no question about that. However, I take slight issue with the blandishment that if we simply put in the money that has been taken out, everything would be improved. The reality is that, unless we reform the system to make it more efficient, we will be throwing money at the situation and not taking a sensible, radical and reform-minded approach. The simple point I make is that, where we are making real progress as a country, and where the CPS, through its diligent prosecutors and caseworkers, is able to make a difference, is through systematic changes such as those to the digital case system, which are achieving a step change and improvement in quality. That point is worth making.
The hon. Gentleman also rightly praised that excellent public servant, Alison Saunders. In that vein, is it not worth listening very carefully to what she herself said? She came before the Justice Committee, and I think it was I who asked—by the way, I have no difficulties with asking an open question to get an answer that might be unhelpful to the Government—if the CPS has enough money. I would have been perfectly prepared for her to say, “No, it’s hopeless; we’re going to hell in a handbasket and something has to be sorted out”, but her response was:
“Yes, we think we do, particularly now that we have the CSR settlement. I am not saying that it is easy; let me say that first. Over the last five years, our budget has reduced by 23% or so.”
She went on to talk about the sensible and pragmatic steps that have been taken, but she answered that question in the affirmative. On a subsequent occasion, she indicated she fully agreed with this CPS comment:
“This settlement will allow the CPS to respond to a changing caseload and the significant increase in complex and sensitive cases, such as terrorism, rape and serious sexual assaults and child sex abuse.”
One cannot have it both ways by saying she is a fantastic public servant—which she is, by the way—and ignoring what she says.
I respectfully and completely agree with the hon. Gentleman’s intentions. He wants an excellent Crown Prosecution Service. I do, too. He values excellent Crown prosecutors. I do, too. Equally, however, we have to look at this in a sophisticated way, not simply through the blunt instrument of funding. I believe, broadly speaking, that we are on the right track. We have excellent public servants; we should allow them to get on with their job.
First, I should say that my wife is a non-practising solicitor. For the avoidance of doubt, that is my declaration of interest.
I recently met the chief Crown prosecutor for Wessex, Kate Brown, who is based in Hampshire. She and I discussed the “CPS 2020” plan. It seems to me that it is a clear plan to continuously improve the way the CPS works—those are its own words. I must say to the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner) that the picture he paints is certainly not the whole story. It may be one side of the story; it is more likely part of the story from a particular perspective. While I respect his views and experience, in the interest of fairness, it is important that some of the successes of the CPS are also placed on the record in the short time available.
For instance—I have different statistics from the hon. Gentleman—net annual expenditure since 2011-12 is down £101 million. Yes, a reduction in expenditure has led to a 27% reduction in headcount from that date, but convictions remain steady at around 83%. Some £84 million has been put back into public funds through the proceeds of crime being recovered, even though, owing to the way the criminal justice system has evolved, there is a shifting case load.
There are now 28% more sexual offence cases and 23% more fraud and forgery cases than five years ago. How? Because the CPS has changed the way it works. It is building stronger cases from the start and encouraging more early and appropriate guilty pleas. Some 76% of pleas are now guilty, up from 69% in 2011-12. While Crown court cases remain steady at around 100,000 cases per annum, there has been a 36% reduction in magistrates court cases. The way the CPS works is changing to deliver the right outcomes for citizens across the country.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I am afraid, in the interest of time, I cannot. As the CPS put it, it will deliver an efficient operating model through
which has been referred to—
“Better Case Management and Transforming Summary Justice.”
Digitisation alone will potentially save more than 5% of the £3.3 million cost of paper and couriers. That is one small element of the savings that can be made in the CPS budget.
The CPS budget is constantly reviewed, which is important. When the Attorney General was asked about that, he made it clear that he has regular discussions with the Director of Public Prosecutions, but that she and he
“both believe that the spending review settlement enables the CPS to respond effectively”.—[Official Report, 14 January 2016; Vol. 604, c. 978.]
I think that sums it up. It is clear, if we look at those statistics and at the “CPS 2020” plan—which is the CPS’s document, not this Government’s—that the CPS’s funding should be reviewed, as it always is, but that more importantly, it is delivering for the needs of decent people across this country who want to see justice done.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. I have already referred to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner) on securing this debate and pay tribute to the work he did as a shadow Law Officer. When I came into this House, I watched him carry out the role of shadow Solicitor General and, subsequently, shadow Attorney General, and his was a model to follow. His passionate speech at the start of the debate sums up his depth of feeling about the issues before us.
It was great to hear the speech of the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk). His praise of the work done by Crown Prosecution Service staff was very well put, and I think we all agree across the House that tremendous work is done in the circumstances in which those staff find themselves. The hon. Members for North East Hampshire (Mr Jayawardena) and for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) both spoke powerfully and talked about digitisation, which clearly will be an issue.
I think all Opposition Members agree with the hon. Member for Cheltenham that this is not purely about money. Obviously it is not. However, it is now 2017, and the Conservative party, either in coalition or on its own, has been in power and responsible for our criminal justice system for nearly seven years. It has to bear responsibility for the system as it is today.
We have heard eye-watering figures about the cuts in the budget. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull East talked about the overall cut in expenditure. Indeed, the resource budget has seen a real-terms cut of 24% since 2010-11. I am grateful to the Solicitor General for answering my written questions about the staffing budget. The figures given show that the staffing budget in 2015-16 is 40% of what it was in 2010-11.
I will make two broad points about the Crown Prosecution Service. The first is about where our criminal justice system is in 2017. No doubt the Solicitor General will have read the Public Accounts Committee report last May, which said:
“The criminal justice system is close to breaking point.”
We also have to look at how the system is performing today. Let us take the Crown court, for example. From March 2013 to 1 March 2016, there was a 34% increase in the backlog of cases. We can also take average waiting times. I have the quarterly criminal court statistics published in September, which look at the previous six months. Whether this is purely about money or not, the performance of the system is as follows. What is the average waiting time in weeks at the Crown court? For both triable-either-way offences and indictable-only offences, it is now above 20 weeks. There has been a steady increase, going back to 2013. There may be slight variations quarter to quarter, but that is the trend from 2013, when the one figure was below 18 weeks and the other was below 15 weeks. That is the performance of the system.
The hon. Gentleman draws attention, quite properly, to a very salient figure, but how can one be absolutely clear that that is to do with the Crown Prosecution Service as against the list office, the offence or the actions of the court? Why focus specifically on the CPS?
I hoped I had made it clear that this is about the performance of the system. The Conservative party, in one way or another, has been responsible for that system for seven years. Wherever in the system we isolate the cause, the Conservative party cannot escape blame for the performance of the system. That is the point I have been seeking to make.
When we talk about money, we have to be extremely careful about false economies, because things can seem as if they will save money. Let me give an example. I drew attention to the staffing budget, which I asked a specific written question about, and the Solicitor General was kind enough to answer very directly. It has been substantially reduced, but at the same time the Crown Prosecution Service is spending substantial amounts of money on agency staff. The response to my written question showed that in 2015-16, more than £7.8 million was spent on agency staff.
When we look at this in the round, we have to do so in two senses. First, of course this is not purely about money, but when money is cut from certain budgets, we have to be conscious of the effect on the system and whether false economies are causing problems further down the line or mean that we have to hire agency staff instead. The second point is about the whole system of which the Crown Prosecution Service is a part. I hope that all of us across this House want to see these measures improve. The responsibility is on the Government for these measures to improve. I am sure they accept that responsibility, but they have to act, and act quickly, because the performance of the system clearly needs to improve rapidly.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. I know, on a personal level, that you have had a long interest in these matters. I hope the debate has been of particular salience to you.
I thank the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner), my former shadow. It has been nice to be together again in that sense. I have often thought that it would have been great if he and I had done a case against each other, but I was in another part of the country from him. When he was reminiscing—not quite eulogising—about his days carrying large amounts of files to the magistrates court, it took me back to my time back in the ’90s when I did precisely the same thing.
Here is the rub: times have changed. The hon. Gentleman will be glad to know that he does not now have to carry all those files. He can have it all on an iPad or a laptop, because of the Transforming Summary Justice initiative in the magistrates court. That means there is far more efficiency now in the use of digital technology in the court. If he came with me to CPS offices, he would be amazed that in magistrates court divisions now, paper is the exception, rather than the rule.
It is all very good when it works, but people are reporting to me that, sadly, it does not work and often goes wrong—very badly wrong. Cases are vacated as a result of the very thing the Solicitor General mentions.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for sharing some powerful anecdotes. I do not underplay anecdote; it certainly helped to inform me in my long career at the criminal Bar. However, the overall statistics tell the full story about what is happening across the system. There is no doubt that in the magistrates court, we are seeing an increase in efficiency. For example, guilty pleas at the first hearing in the magistrates court have increased as a proportion of total cases from just over 62% back in 2010 to over 70% in the past year. That is indicative—
Of self-represented clients—litigants in person.
No, it is not. It is indicative of much better preparation by the prosecution of the cases, so that when defendants appear, they face a case that has been properly put together. That is also reflected by the increase in the overall guilty plea rate, which has gone up from just under 68% to 76.3%.
The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East talked about inefficiency. I am pleased to tell him that average hearings per case for both guilty pleas and trials have reduced. For trials heard in the magistrates court, we are now looking at just under three days, as opposed to three and a half days or more. Compliance with judges’ orders was always an issue when it came to the Crown Prosecution Service. Hon. Members will remember “mentions”—my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) will know exactly what I am talking about. I am glad to say that we have seen an increase in timely compliance with judges’ orders in the Crown court in recent years. The rate has increased to more than 80% in the last two years.
Does my hon. and learned Friend agree that we need an ongoing discussion about how the CPS can be more efficient and effective in its work and that that should continue?
My hon. Friend represents a city that has a Crown court and a magistrates court. It is an important court centre in the east midlands. I know from my visits to many regions across England and Wales that those conversations continue. There is local liaison and local discussion.
To respond to the point my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) made about accountability, joint performance management, which is what we are talking about, takes place in most areas and enables local agencies, whether the courts themselves or the defence community, to challenge the CPS when performance is not acceptable. Line managers individually assess prosecutors in the CPS, so accountability is an important part of this.
The Solicitor General read out some of the statistics about magistrates courts. Of course we all want to see and welcome improvement, but is he as concerned as I am that the average number of days from an offence to completion in a magistrates court has increased from 155 days in the second quarter to 2015 to 162 in the second quarter of 2016?
The hon. Gentleman is right to make that point, but the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham is the right one. Here we are debating funding for the CPS and we are eliding two issues: the overall performance of the criminal justice system with the performance of one part of it. What is happening with the caseload, particularly in the Crown court, is that complexity is increasing. There has been a marked shift—the hon. Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds) will agree—away from the sort of volume cases that might take a day or two to quite complex and often difficult cases involving sexual allegations. I am told by many resident judges in the Crown court centres I visit that they now form the lion’s share of court work in the lists. That complexity is definitely resulting in more challenges for the Crown court.
I was glad to note that in recent years the Ministry of Justice has increased sitting days. That has certainly helped to reduce any backlog, but with respect to the hon. Gentleman, it would be a little unfair to lay the problems of delay completely at the door of the Crown Prosecution Service. Let us focus on the debate called by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East on funding.
I accept, of course, that as a result of the tough decisions we had to make in 2010, expenditure was reduced. I pay tribute to the hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer), who stewarded the CPS through that period. He did a remarkable job of delivering efficiency and providing leadership, which was then taken up by Alison Saunders, the Director of Public Prosecutions, who has rightly been praised here today. The hon. and learned Gentleman proved that the job could be done with a declining share of expenditure. When we look at the figures—my hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Jayawardena) mentioned this—we see that performance and conviction rates have stayed remarkably steady through the years.
I am delighted to see on my visits to regional offices that there is smarter use of personnel within the CPS. I will give an example. North-east prosecutors will be able to work remotely—and do so—on south-east cases. That is a good emblematic example of how the CPS is making sure it uses all the resources available to it from whatever part of the country they come. That is certainly a boon to the south-east. I know it happens with prosecutors in Wales who are helping out in cases in London. That is another example of how we must not let regional boundaries become barriers to better working.
Digital case management has now made its way into the Crown court and is making a real difference. With my long years at the coalface of the criminal Bar, I was the first to be sceptical about digital and the use of IT. I have seen it before, but, believe you me, when I saw the pilots in Southwark, for example, I was delighted to see judges embracing that and telling me that the system was user friendly and starting to make a difference. Now that it has been rolled out across the country, it is starting to bear fruit.
Hon. Members talked about the challenges of the CPS and about charging decisions. It is right to say that the police have a role with regard to some charging decisions. There was a sea change, in that motoring offences were largely transferred to the police for decision making. That of course added to the reality that, with the increase in sexual offences, the CPS was now dealing with an entirely different caseload. There was not a like-for-like transition, and that complexity means extra challenges for CPS lawyers.
The hon. Member for Torfaen referred to the use of agency workers. I make no apology for that, because I think that using the independent Bar—whether to do agency work in the magistrates court or, vitally, to prosecute serious cases in the Crown court—is exactly what the Crown Prosecution Service should be doing. I am glad to say, having spoken with chief Crown prosecutors across the country, that it is increasingly using the experience and expertise of prosecutors to manage cases effectively within the system, so that we have the excellence in advocacy that we get from the independent Bar and the excellence in case management that we get from experienced CPS employees.
I do not think that there would be any disagreement about the excellence of the advocacy of the independent Bar. I was simply making the point that when we see apparent cuts in the staffing budget, we have to look at the overall picture. We have to look at the temporary staff as well in adding things up to a single figure.
Again, I have spoken directly to many CPS staff, particularly in Wales; indeed, a lot of them used to instruct me. Some of the staff have been there for 30 years—the CPS’s retention rate is extraordinary. I think I get a bit of frankness from them, and they tell me that, in many respects, working practices have improved. The reduction in offices has helped them to work more smartly. They are now physically co-located in buildings with the police. They are working in ways that they did not dream were possible before.
Does my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor General agree with me, and indeed the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner), that if one is to use the independent Bar, it is also important to ensure that equality of arms is observed? There comes a point at which victims’ groups and victims’ families can rightly note the disparity that apparently exists between the seniority of counsel for the defence and the relatively junior status of counsel for the Crown.
My hon. Friend makes an important general point. Equality of arms is, of course, enshrined in article 6 of the European convention on human rights. It is something that we all understand as practitioners. It would be wrong of me to comment on individual cases, but I will say that where the Crown Prosecution Service is having to deal with complicated and complex issues relating to homicide, resource is never a bar to using the most experienced and senior counsel available, and that of course includes leading counsel.
Time is extremely short, and I want to give the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East a minute to respond, but let me say this. With regard to engagement, the most recent survey of employees of the CPS, of which two thirds took part, showed a welcome increase this year of 5%, right up to a figure of just over 59% telling us that morale in the CPS is good. They face significant challenges, but with increased numbers, particularly in the rape and serious sexual offences units, and an emphasis on the prosecution not just of volume cases but of serious sexual offences, conviction rates continue to stay steady and the numbers of people being brought to justice continue to rise, particularly in the important area of violence against women and girls. I could say much more, but I am mindful of the time.
I am grateful to the Solicitor General for what he has said, but I am disappointed that he has not been prepared to admit that everything is not entirely rosy in the garden at the CPS. He describes a scenario in which senior people in the CPS in his own area, who indeed instructed him—
Order. I am loth to stop the hon. Gentleman in full flow, but the sitting stands adjourned.
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).