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Departmental Priorities: Covid-19 Implications

Volume 677: debated on Tuesday 9 June 2020

What recent assessment he has made of the implications of the covid-19 outbreak for his Department’s priorities. (902956)

Covid-19 has indeed brought unprecedented challenges to the justice system, but I am proud of how my Department, and everybody in it, has responded to keep the wheels of justice turning and to adapt to this changing world. We have harnessed technology to use audio and video in 90% of our hearings, and we are using video calls and secure mobile phones to keep prisoners in touch with their families and to maintain order. Getting the system fully back up and running is now our priority, which is why we are working at pace on issues such as increasing jury trials and, indeed, the legislative programme that we have. The world is changing, but we will need to continue to ensure that, as we recover, we build a more effective justice system.

As the Secretary of State is aware, 10 prison staff have died from covid-19. As in the health and social care sector, it is not medals that staff want, but decent pay and conditions. Will he commit to adopting the best practice demands of the unions for a safe working environment, and will he authorise the additional financial compensation to families who lose a loved one to covid-19, as applies in the health sector?

The hon. Gentleman knows that in response to this outbreak we took particular measures agreed by the Treasury to ensure that those working in the prison system were rewarded financially in terms of incentives and extra pay to deal with the pressure they were facing. That regime continues to exist, and we continue to engage regularly with prison representatives and the unions to discuss the issues he has raised. It is an ongoing discussion, but he can be assured that I and my Ministers have taken every reasonable step possible so far to support our dedicated staff.

People still need justice, even in an emergency. In normal times, more than 200 jury trials ordinarily take place in England and Wales each week. During the height of the covid-19 lockdown, jury trials were suspended entirely due to public health concerns. A few weeks ago, as the lockdown measures were relaxed, jury trials restarted, but at only a fraction of the normal rate. We expect the Ministry of Justice to at least know the size of the challenges it faces. What is the Secretary of State’s estimate of the total number of jury trials in the backlog currently waiting to be held?

The right hon. Gentleman will be glad to know that I continue to look at that on a daily basis. The overall case load in the Crown Court is approaching just over 41,000. Before the crisis it was 39,000, so there has been a slight increase. Within that case load, the courts have managed a lot of cases that can be dealt with administratively and by way of plea, but that does leave a cohort of trials to be dealt with. Normally, 200 jury trials a week will be heard in England and Wales, and we are still dealing with a very small number. That will clearly tell him the scale of the challenge, but I can say to him that both the Lord Chief Justice and I are working together closely in order to scale up capacity, to look at court hours and the way the courts sit so that we can accommodate jurors and staff, and to do whatever it takes not just to manage that case load number but to bring it down as we go through the year.

The Lord Chancellor has a strong record of defending judicial independence, and I congratulate him on that. Does he agree that it is equally important that those in Government do not seek to influence the police or the Crown Prosecution Service in the exercise of their duties? Can he confirm that that is why he, unlike other members of the Government, refrained from tweeting in support of Dominic Cummings when there was a live issue as to whether Mr Cummings had breached the lockdown regulations and guidance?

The hon. and learned Lady will know that I refrain, in correspondence and, indeed, in statements or questions in the House, from talking about individual cases. I remind her and the House that, as Lord Chancellor, I will always act in a way that is consistent with the rule of law. The independence of the police and prosecutorial authorities has to be paramount, and that is something that I will absolutely uphold. My constitutional duties come first, and everybody within Government knows that full well.

Perhaps the Lord Chancellor could share those thoughts with the Attorney General.

Upholding human rights is also an important part of the Lord Chancellor’s Department’s priorities. When the Minister for the Cabinet Office gave evidence to the Committee on the Future Relationship with the European Union recently, he made it clear that the Government still intended to amend the Human Rights Act 1998. Can the Lord Chancellor reassure us that any such amendments will not seek to abrogate domestic law giving effect to the European convention on human rights?

I can tell the hon. and learned Lady that, as part of our manifesto commitment, we have pledged to update the Human Rights Act, which is now 20 years old in terms of its operation. That is only the right and proper thing to do. I can absolutely assure her that our membership of the convention is beyond any doubt or peradventure. That will very much remain the case as we go through the negotiations with our friends in the European Union on the future relationship and, indeed, domestically as well. We are working on an important independent review into the operation of the Human Rights Act, and I will update the House when further details are available.

People in Midlothian have made huge sacrifices, over months now, to obey the rules, while the Prime Minister’s most senior adviser was breaking them on multiple occasions. Does the Secretary of State believe it is right that some unelected bureaucrats appear to be allowed to break the law while the public are cautioned or fined?

The hon. Gentleman can be reassured: he knows that I believe in equality before the law, and that is why I refrain from making comments about individual cases. I respect the decisions made by the police independently and, indeed, by the Crown Prosecution Service and any other prosecutorial authority either north or south of the border.