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Serious Criminal Cases Backlog

Volume 687: debated on Wednesday 20 January 2021

Before I call the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) to ask his urgent question, I remind all hon. Members participating in these exchanges that it is important that no reference should be made to individual cases in a way that prejudices current and prospective criminal proceedings.

To ask the Secretary of State for Justice if he will make a statement on the backlog of serious criminal cases in the justice system.

The covid pandemic is truly unprecedented. It has affected every corner of our lives—from hospital operations delayed, to schools closed, to businesses struggling and even to how Parliament itself operates, we have seen covid’s effects. The court system is no different: bringing people safely into buildings for trials—especially jury trials—and hearings is a difficult thing to do. That is why so much has been done to keep delivering justice in these difficult times.

We have invested £142 million in upgrading court buildings and technology, alongside £110 million to increase capacity, making an investment of over a quarter of a billion pounds in court recovery this year. We are hiring 1,600 extra staff. We have opened 19 new Nightingale courts, with 35 new courtrooms. As of today, we have over 290 covid-safe jury trial courtrooms—substantially more than before the pandemic. We have installed plexiglass screens in 450 courts to protect users. We have installed cloud video platform technology in 150 magistrates courts and 70 Crown courts, allowing 20,000 remote hearings per week.

In the first lockdown, and as these measures have been put into place, backlogs have, understandably, developed. That has been the case across the world. But the fruits of our labours are now being seen. We have been faster than almost every jurisdiction to recover and we believe that we were the first country in the world to restart jury trials, back in May. Since August, the magistrates court backlog has been relentlessly reducing, month on month. Crown court jury trials are obviously much harder, for reasons of social distancing, but even there, in the last four weeks before Christmas, Crown court disposals exceeded receipts for the first time since covid began. At this very moment, as we stand here, about 230 jury trials are taking place. The joint inspectors’ report said earlier this week:

“It is a real testament to the criminal justice system that in spite of the pandemic…service was maintained.”

I pay tribute to the judges, magistrates, jurors, witnesses, victims, lawyers, court staff, Crown Prosecution Service staff and Ministry of Justice officials who have made that monumental effort to deliver justice in spite of covid.

We will not rest. We are adding more courtrooms, further increasing remote hearings, and examining options for longer operating hours. We are also taking action to mitigate the impact on victims and witnesses, this year providing an extra £32 million of funding and next year an extra £25 million of funding, including for rape and domestic violence victims.

This year has been incredibly difficult in the courts, as in so many places, but through a monumental, collective effort the system is recovering. The recovery will gather strength and pace with every day that passes, and I know that everyone in the House will support that work.

We all know the numbers. The backlog of criminal cases in the Crown court has grown to more than 54,000. Including the magistrates courts, it has reached more than 457,000 cases. Serious criminal cases are being delayed by up to four years. Convictions are at by far their lowest this decade. Estimates show that the current scale of increase in the backlog would take 10 years to clear at pre-pandemic rates.

Numbers do not tell the whole story. Behind criminal cases, there are victims: victims of rape, robbery, domestic abuse, and violent assault. Each of those victims is being denied the speedy justice that our society owes them. It has been repeated many times, but it is true: justice delayed is justice denied. This is not just the case because of the pain that delays cause victims and the wrongly accused—it is because delays to justice can affect the verdict.

On Tuesday, four criminal justice watchdogs for England and Wales warned of “grave concerns” about the impact of court backlogs. Victims and witnesses may avoid the justice system entirely because of the delays. Witnesses may be unable to recall events properly many years after the event. As a responsible Opposition, we accept that the pandemic has caused unprecedented challenges for the justice system. However, we do not accept the Government’s presentation of the backlog as a crisis that has resulted only from coronavirus. Before the pandemic, the Crown court backlog stood at 39,000 cases.

That figure was the result of sustained attacks on the justice system by successive Conservative Governments: an entire decade of court closures, cuts and reduced sitting days. Blackfriars Crown court was sold off by the Government in December 2019. It is now sitting empty, but it is being rented out as a film set by the developer for a new series of “Top Boy”. The Minister said “recovery”, but meanwhile the Government are paying through the nose for Nightingale courts a stone’s throw away.

Six hundred court staff, judges, lawyers and jurors have tested positive for covid-19 in the past seven weeks. A pilot scheme of lateral flow tests has now been authorised at only two courts in London and Manchester. A pilot scheme is not good enough, and neither is the plexiglass. Why have lateral flow tests not been implemented across the court system? The Minister knows that that is a serious problem and that we are a long way from recovery. Can he tell the House why the pitiful 19 Nightingale courts that he has managed to deliver fall so short of the 200 that Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service said were needed? Can he tell the House why lateral flow tests are not being trialled across the whole country? After 11 years of incompetence and cuts, will he admit that his Government failed to fix the roof while the sun was shining?

The shadow Justice Secretary referred to the number of cases outstanding in the magistrates courts: 460,000. What he neglected to mention to the House was that, after the first lockdown, that peaked at 525,000 and has come down since then by 65,000 as the case load reduces relentlessly, month on month, and as our system recovers.

The right hon. Member mentioned waiting times. Of course we do not want to see very long waiting times, but I can tell him that the clear majority of remand cases that had their first hearing in November will have their trial by July of this year, and the clear majority of bail cases will have their trial heard by December of this year. He mentioned the report, which I have read carefully. Its authors, who do not inspect Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service, did not engage with HMCTS prior to finalising it, which was regrettable.

The right hon. Member mentioned witnesses and victims, who are at the heart of everything that we do. Vulnerable witnesses, where it is appropriate, can give evidence under section 28 recorded well in advance of the trial, in order to avoid issues with forgetting particular evidence. I strongly encourage the CPS, defence, judges and other court users to use that section 28 facility.

The right hon. Member mentioned the number of cases outstanding in the Crown court. He claimed that before the pandemic the system was in bad shape. He mentioned the 39,000 Crown court cases outstanding in March of last year before the pandemic. What he forgot to mention was that when Labour left office in 2010 it was not 39,000; it was 47,000—considerably higher.

The right hon. Member talked about cuts. I anticipated that he might, so I looked up the HMCTS budget, which in 2011 was £1.65 billion. It has gone up by £200 million to £1.85 billion. He asked about the number of courtrooms and court centres. As I said, we now have 290 operational covid-safe Crown court jury trial rooms—significantly more than we had before covid. As I said in my first answer, in the magistrates court the outstanding case load has been declining relentlessly month on month, every month since August, and in the Crown court disposals exceeded receipts, so the lines crossed, for the first time in the full week before Christmas.

The right hon. Member asked about covid safety. Of course, Public Health England and Public Health Wales have signed off our courts as covid-safe. The number of HMCTS staff testing positive is in line with what we would expect in the general population; it is no higher, and no lower. Lateral flow testing is available at local authority lateral flow testing sites. We are exploring whether we can roll it out more fully.

Finally, the right hon. Member asked about the record of this Government on criminal justice. The most authoritative source of data is, of course, the crime survey. It is the only Office for National Statistics approved set of crime statistics. Crime in the last 10 years under this Government has fallen from 9.5 million offences down to about 5.6 million—a 41% reduction—according to the crime survey. Those numbers speak louder than words. Our record is a good one.

The Minister is right to pay tribute to the work that is being done by all those in the system under very difficult circumstances. It is right, too, to recognise the investment that has been made to deal with this, but I am sure that he will also accept that for the backlog to be reduced to acceptable levels, disposals in the Crown court in particular will have to exceed receipts for a sustained period of time.

The Minister will also know that there are a number of serious organised crime cases with multiple defendants coming into the system, which will put in additional strains. Does he therefore agree that to make the system sustainable going forward we will need sustained and continued investment at higher levels than we have seen before for a number of years to come? Will he recognise that that is the case that all of us who care about the system, regardless of party, need to make to the Treasury and elsewhere?

I thank my hon. Friend, the Chair of the Justice Committee, for his question. He is of course right: we need to have sustained levels of disposals exceeding receipts. We got there just before Christmas for the first time during the pandemic following a heroic effort, but he is right that it needs to be sustained. We are making it clear that the resources needed to achieve that will be made available. In the current year, Crown court sitting days will not be any constraint on getting cases listed. Subject, obviously, to the usual discussions with the judiciary, we anticipate a very significant increase in Crown court sitting days in the next financial year to achieve the objective that he rightly and properly calls for.

Criminal justice is devolved in Scotland, and here the focus has been on ensuring that jury trials continue in the most serious cases where accused persons are in custody and where the nature of the alleged offence demands that priority be given, which includes sexual offences. The report we are talking about today deals with England and Wales only. It has found numerous examples of serious cases being cancelled at short notice, and it has warned that delays could result in crime victims being unable to support prosecutions.

What new steps is the Minister taking to ensure that, as already happens in Scotland, the United Kingdom Government are complying with their duty under article 3 of the European convention on human rights to ensure that there are effective remedies for the victims of sexual offences and, in particular, that we avoid—or that he avoids—undue delay in getting cases of sexual offences to trial? I know what has been done in Scotland. I am keen to know what the Minister is going to do in England and Wales, given the finding of this report.

We are as keen as the hon. and learned Member is and everyone is to make sure that these very sensitive cases involving rape or similar offences get heard quickly, but of course it is a matter for the judiciary to decide when they are listed and sometimes there are reasons to do with case management why a case may get adjourned while things are dealt with. But we have, for example, now rolled out the section 28 evidence provisions that I mentioned, so sensitive evidence can be given by recorded video, which can be taken well in advance of a trial—designed to help exactly what she is describing—and we have made large amounts of money available, with the extra £25 million next year and £32 million this year, to support and help witnesses and victims.

I was slightly concerned to read a remark by the Lord President in Scotland saying that during lockdown criminal cases in Scotland would be down by 75%. I am sure the hon. and learned Member shares my concern about that, and anything we can do to exchange ideas in our mutual interests I am sure we will be very happy to do.

Around the world, the United Kingdom rightly has a reputation of having a first-class criminal justice system. The present large backlog in criminal trials due to the pandemic is of immense concern to me in terms of the rights of victims, witnesses and defendants and the need for a timely trial. Can my hon. Friend assure me that sufficient resources are going to be forthcoming to resolve the present backlog within a proper timeframe?

My hon. Friend is right to raise this question. As I said in my opening remarks, the pandemic—the global pandemic—has had a huge impact on public services not just in this country but across the world, and the court system is not immune from that. That is why we have seen the additional cases that we have discussed this afternoon.

My hon. Friend asked about resources. The Government are categorically committed to putting in the resources necessary to facilitate the recovery of the courts. I mentioned earlier that this year alone we have invested an extra £143 million in court buildings and technology to make our courts covid-safe and an extra £110 million in increasing our courts capacity. That is an investment of an extra quarter of a billion pounds this year alone to make sure that the court recovery not just gets started, but continues in the current vein. So I can give my hon. Friend the assurance that she is quite rightly asking for.

There is more and more evidence that domestic abuse has increased dramatically during lockdown. The Bar Council has led calls for non-means-tested legal aid to be made available for all cases of domestic abuse. Will the Minister provide this as a matter of urgency, and commit to provide this as a matter of urgency, please?

Domestic violence most certainly is a very serious and very important matter. That is why, when the pandemic started, the senior judiciary sent directions to magistrates courts laying out which cases should be dealt with as a matter of priority. One of the items in the top priority—the priority 1 list of cases—was domestic violence protection orders, because the judiciary and the system recognise their importance. In relation to legal aid, it is kept under review of course, but we are always making sure that domestic violence victims receive not just protection, but quick protection. That is vitally important.

All criminal cases begin in the magistrates courts and all magistrates are volunteers, so will my hon. Friend join me in thanking and congratulating magistrates on everything they are doing to clear the backlog in their courts? Will he assure me and all users of our magistrates courts that he will do whatever it takes to keep them safe and ensure that justice continues to be done in our local communities?

I know my hon. Friend has a long and distinguished history serving on the bench as a magistrate, so I would like to publicly recognise that and I join him in extending my warm and enthusiastic thanks to magistrates up and down the country, who have been keeping justice going in incredibly difficult circumstances—and not just keeping justice going, but clearing down the backlog, which has been reducing since August, as I said earlier. One of my parliamentary team sits as a magistrate in Croydon Crown court—one of the many thousands of magistrates—and I thank all of them for what they have done to deliver justice in these most trying of times.

Rape and sexual violence prosecutions are at their lowest ever level in England and Wales, and domestic abuse prosecutions are down 19%, and that is at a time, during lockdown, when domestic abuse is widely reported to have increased, so what steps are the Government taking to speed up justice for vulnerable people who are victims of these abhorrent crimes?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. There is an issue with, for example, the charging and prosecution of rape cases in particular, which predates the pandemic. There is a problem and it needs to be addressed. Some steps have been taken already—for example, changes to the rules around disclosure, which had been a problem in rape cases, and the provision of significant extra money even before the pandemic to support independent sexual violence advisers and rape crisis centres and to support the victims of these awful crimes, but more needs to be done. The Ministry of Justice and the Home Office are conducting a rape review, which is being led by the Minister for Crime and Policing. That is due to report very shortly and will contain further actions in this very important area.

I worked in the Courts Service for 20 years, and there have been case delays under all colours of Government, so the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) has a very selective memory on this issue. It is not surprising that this pandemic has caused delays in court cases right around the world, but will my hon. Friend the Minister ensure that delays to domestic violence cases are prioritised? As he knows, often pressure grows on victims as a case progresses and too often their resolve diminishes and they feel unable to continue supporting the case.

My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. We are very concerned about these cases and that is why we are spending a great deal of extra money—as I say, next year, an additional £32 million—to help protect victims and witnesses of awful cases such as those of domestic violence and rape. As I have mentioned, the judiciary have already prioritised domestic violence protection orders in the magistrates courts and, although listing is a judicial function, I know that judges are prioritising very serious cases of rape and domestic violence to make sure those cases get heard quickly, for the reason that he has mentioned. In addition, we rolled out section 28, the video evidence provisions, in, I think, November last year—just a couple of months ago—to make sure vulnerable witnesses can give evidence by video quickly, well in advance of the substantive hearing, to make sure some of the issues to do with victim attrition that he mentioned are addressed quickly and as far as they possibly can be.

In 2016 the Government announced the closure of 127 courts and tribunals centres. Responding to a debate I secured at the time the Justice Minister’s predecessor, the hon. Member for North West Cambridgeshire (Mr Vara), acknowledged the importance of prompt investment in digital courts, saying:

“Otherwise, there will be an extraordinarily chaotic justice system, which is the last thing any of us want.”—[Official Report, 1 March 2016; Vol. 606, c. 258WH.]

Does the Minister accept that, notwithstanding coronavirus, the Government’s court closures, combined with a digital investment programme which only started after the closures, was scaled back and is running significantly behind schedule, represents a catastrophic failure to sustain access to justice?

I do not accept the hon. Lady’s criticism. Travel times to courts before and after the programme that she mentions were very little different. As I said, due to the actions that we have taken during this pandemic, there are significantly more covid-safe Crown court jury trial rooms today than there were before the pandemic.

In relation to online justice, the cloud video platform was developed prior to coronavirus. Its roll-out has been expedited. In the weeks running up to Christmas we saw 20,000 remote hearings per week across all jurisdictions, and in fact last week was a record week. There are 150 magistrates courts and 70 Crown courts now connected. The use of remote video and audio hearing technology has been extremely widespread. It is very impressive, and it is doing its job extremely well in these difficult circumstances.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on all the hard work that his Department has done during this incredibly difficult time, particularly with regard to the implementation of video hearings. Twenty thousand hearings have now been undertaken through the cloud video platform every month. Will he outline whether the use of remote technology will be expanded to help reduce court backlogs?

I thank my hon. Friend, who of course has a distinguished background in this field himself, for his question. We do intend to continue rolling out the use of video and remote technology in the way that he describes. We see huge opportunities there. The Lord Chief Justice, in response to the most recent lockdown, urged trial judges and other judges to use remote hearing technology as widely as they possibly can, so this work is continuing. As I said in response to the last question, last week was a record week for remote hearings, and we expect the roll-out and the adoption of this technology to continue apace.

The Minister points, as if it were an excuse, to previous backlogs of jury trials. The difference is that in 2010 and 2015, the previous peak, there were 600 to 700 trials happening a week and numbers were falling. Now he is boasting about 230 happening, despite his target back in November being 333. Does he accept that his proposals for clearing the Crown court backlog at the moment are not working and are inadequate?

I would point out that 230 is the number happening as we speak; in the weeks leading up to Christmas, the average was more like 275. In relation to the number of trials over the last few years, as I said in answer to the shadow Justice Secretary, the right hon. Member for Tottenham, crime, as measured by the British crime survey, has fallen by 41% since Labour left office, so it is not entirely surprising that the number of trials has reduced commensurately.

However, we are now increasing the number of sitting days and the number of jury trials. As I said, the last full week before Christmas saw the number of Crown court disposals exceed the number of receipts for the first time in the pandemic. As the Justice Committee Chairman rightly said in his question, we now need to sustain that over a period of time to ensure that the outstanding case load gets back down to where it was before, which I remind the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) was a great deal lower than when Labour left office.

I am grateful for the answers that my hon. Friend gave to the hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) and my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) in relation to support for victims of domestic violence and other vulnerable witnesses. It is a tremendously tough time for everyone involved in the judicial system and on its periphery. I am thinking particularly of MK Act, the domestic violence charity in my constituency, and all the wonderful homelessness charities that we have to support vulnerable people. Sadly, however, those people do end up in the courts system, so what support do we have during the pandemic specifically for vulnerable people going through the courts system?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. Witnesses and victims, particularly in connection with offences such as domestic violence, sexual assault and rape, are very vulnerable and the experience is very traumatising. Often, going through a court process re-traumatises victims, who have often suffered terrible crimes. It is our duty as a justice system to support, protect and look after those victims as they go through the process.

We recognise that that needs investment, which is why we are spending an extra £25 million this year over and above previous plans, and an additional £32 million next year, specifically to support, protect and look after witnesses and victims. We are investing in things such as additional ISVAs, who can help support victims as they go through reliving awful crimes. I entirely concur with my hon. Friend’s sentiment, and we are doing everything possible, including putting in lots of extra money, to achieve the objectives that he points to.

I listened very carefully to the response the Minister gave and this really is not a time for bragging. My very elderly constituent, whose case the Minister knows about through correspondence between us, has been waiting for four years to have a case of alleged fraud come to court. She and her family want justice to be done during her lifetime. That is what they are telling me. The system is clearly not working. It will not be fixed by bragging, but by investment, real reform and perhaps a little bit of ministerial humility.

In relation to investment, I have already said two or three times that in this current financial year, because of the massive challenge posed by coronavirus, we have invested an extra £143 million and the extra £110 million—an extra quarter of a billion pounds—in delivering court recovery. A quarter of a billion pounds is an enormous investment. It is designed to help with cases like those of the hon. Gentleman’s constituent, which we want to be heard quickly. Of course, every individual case has its own circumstances and sometimes there are procedural, evidential or other reasons why individual cases get listed some way into the future, but we do want all those cases to be heard as quickly as they can be. As I said, for remand cases where the defendant is in custody that had their first hearing—their first mention—in November 2020, the clear majority will have their trials heard by July this year. However, we do want to move faster. That is why, as the Chairman of the Select Committee said, we need to make sure that the happy circumstance of disposals exceeding receipts, which we achieved just before Christmas, is continued and sustained into the new year to help people like the hon. Gentleman’s constituents, who quite rightly and reasonably, want their cases heard.

I pay tribute to the work done by the Ministry of Justice in getting the courts open again quickly last year and actually increasing throughput so that we now have more sitting hours and more Crown court trials than we had before covid. Does my hon. Friend agree that we have the opportunity for a real transformation in criminal justice, making more use of technology in trials and in disposals? Can he update the House on plans for more smart tagging, as proposed in a recent Centre for Social Justice report by my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Rob Butler)?

My hon. Friend raises a very good point. As we face the future, the use of technology will be critical in making our justice system faster, more efficient and more accessible. I have already laid out how we have expedited the roll-out of a cloud video platform which facilitates remote hearings. We have been doing quite a lot of work with the police on video remand hearings, where a prisoner who has been arrested and is in a police custody suite has their remand hearing with the magistrates done by video link, rather than being taken to the magistrates court. Quite a lot of that has been going on. We are also just beginning to roll out the common platform, which is an IT system that integrates many parts of the criminal justice system, the Crown Prosecution Service, defence, prosecution and the courts themselves. That work is being trialled pending a full roll-out. My hon. Friend also mentioned a smart tagging, a point, as he said, raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury. We have this year procured a large number of additional GPS tags, which we are now using. We are moving in that direction. The measures he referred to in the sentencing White Paper, which we published, I think, back in September, will, I can tell him, form part of legislation arising in the relatively near future.

Many court users and their representatives are asking for courts to be closed again because of increasing covid outbreaks. Her Majesty’s chief inspector of the Crown Prosecution Service told the Justice Committee yesterday of concerns that some courts are not safe. He said, “I particularly would not wish to be in a court at this time.” Is the Minister planning for courts to close again? What impact will any such change in policy have on the Crown court backlogs that we are concerned about today?

We are not planning to close down the court system, and the Lord Chief Justice made that very clear when the current lockdown was announced. As I have said, we have invested a quarter of a billion pounds in making our courts system covid-safe so that it can keep operating. The hon. Lady cited some remarks by the CPS inspector at the Committee yesterday and I have to tell her, in all candour, that those comments are inaccurate and inappropriate. The proper authorities for determining the safety of our courts system are Public Health England and Public Health Wales, not the inspector of the CPS, and they, having looked at the measures we are taking, have found them to be appropriate and found that our courts are covid-safe. The proof of that pudding is in the eating. As I said earlier, the number of Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service staff who have tested positive for covid is in line with the number in the wider population; courts are not especially unsafe, because of the measures we have been taking and will continue to take. I hope that reassures witnesses, defendants, jurors, lawyers—anyone using the courts—that our courts are safe. Justice should, will and must continue to be delivered.

Northamptonshire police have made really good progress during the pandemic in targeting serious and hardened criminals and, in particular, in busting up local drugs gangs. Having arrested these people, the police need them prosecuted, so will the Minister tell me what the courts situation is in Northamptonshire and what progress is being made on reducing the backlog?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. As I have said, we are opening up as many covid-safe jury courtrooms as we can, to hear the cases such as the ones he is describing. I would be happy to speak to him about opportunities to find additional court space in his fine county, perhaps by looking for some new Nightingale courts that we can use. There are particular challenges associated with so-called “multi-handers”, where there are a large number of defendants, because getting them into a single dock in a covid-safe way is challenging, particularly when there are more than seven defendants. We are looking at that carefully to see what more can be done. We recognise it is an area of particular challenge, but where there are fewer than seven defendants we are able relatively easily to hear those cases and we are doing so.

I have listened carefully to the Minister talk about covid-safe courts, but covid is spreading at an alarming rate and a growing number of legal professionals and organisations, including the Criminal Bar Association and the London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association, are stating that courts are not safe. HMCTS’s desire to address the case backlog should not compromise the health, safety and welfare of workers and court users. So can the Minister confirm reports by the Public and Commercial Services Union that on a single day last week 19 crisis management team meetings were needed to assist areas with multiple covid incidents?

The measures taken to make sure our courts are covid-safe have been assessed and signed off by Public Health England and Public Health Wales, which are the appropriate authorities. We are very concerned to make sure that courts remain covid-safe, which is why as many hearings as possible are being done remotely, following a direction from the Lord Chief Justice a short while ago. It is also why we have social distancing in courts, why they are cleaned very frequently, and why we have plexiglass screens installed in courtrooms and in jury retiring and deliberation rooms. If any court user, be they barrister, solicitor, witness or anyone else, is concerned about any particular circumstances that they observe, there is a reporting process—an escalation process. I strongly urge anyone who sees anything amiss to use that reporting service. On the situation generally, I point to the figures I mentioned before, which show that the number of HMCTS staff testing covid positive is in line with what we would expect in the general community. But we are not complacent about this and we are going to work hard to continue to make sure that courts are safe.

Will my hon. Friend join me in thanking all the court staff, legal professionals and the judiciary, who have kept our justice system running throughout lockdown? Does he agree that the recruitment of an extra 1,600 court staff will help speed up our justice system’s recovery?

Yes, I certainly will join my hon. Friend in thanking the judiciary, magistrates and everybody involved in delivering justice for their heroic, herculean efforts during this pandemic. In many countries around the world, justice has slowed or even stopped. Although we have many challenges, as we have discussed, we are doing a great deal better in this jurisdiction than many other countries around the world, thanks to the work of judges, magistrates, court staff, lawyers and everybody who makes the system operate. I extend my warm thanks to them. She is quite right that the 1,600 extra staff—getting on for a 10% increase—will make a big difference in delivering the court recovery we need and, importantly, in sustaining that into the months ahead.

Last September, I raised in the House the fact that the majority of Barnsley court cases have been moved to Sheffield courts. The measures the Minister claimed had been put in place have clearly not worked in reducing the backlog. I ask him again: what is his plan to make sure that everyone can access justice?

We are putting more resources into the system, with more court rooms for jury trials, more magistrates courts sitting on Saturdays and no limitation this year on the number of Crown court sitting days. All those things are designed to make sure that we get through the work available and deliver swift justice. If there are any particular local issues affecting her and her constituents, I would be happy to correspond or meet to discuss them. The Government have an unshakeable commitment to making sure that justice is delivered right across the country.

I thank the Minister for his statement. However, this problem will outlive the pandemic. We need criminals to face the sentences they deserve as soon as possible. I have constituents in Redcar and Cleveland who have been waiting more than two and a half years for their day in court, and we all have victims who are waiting for justice to be done. It is great that we have established a Nightingale court in Middlesbrough to help with this, but what is the long-term strategy to cope with these delays, and how long can we expect the Nightingale courts to continue?

I think the Nightingale courts will continue for as long as we need them. My hon. Friend makes a good point: at some point in the relatively near future, we hope that the current restrictions will be eased or even lifted, but that will not be the end of the story as far as the courts are concerned, because we will need to continue working, probably significantly beyond the end of the current coronavirus circumstances, to make sure that the court system is in the shape that we want. This journey will continue; it will not end suddenly in the coming months. We will make sure that the courts and sitting days needed are available so that justice is delivered. He mentioned making sure that criminals get the right sentences. He will have read the sentencing White Paper last September. We will shortly legislate in this area, and that legislation will include longer sentences—more time spent in prison—for the most serious criminals, which I am sure he and his constituents will strongly welcome.

Can the Minister advise how many of the 400,000 lost police records are linked to these backlogged court cases? Will he take this opportunity to apologise to all victims who are being denied justice because of the Justice and Home Secretaries’ incompetence?

My colleague the police Minister gave a full statement on the police records situation a day or two ago, and the Prime Minister answered questions on that topic from this very Dispatch Box just an hour or so ago, which I am sure the hon. Member listened to carefully. The Justice Secretary and Home Secretary and the Government will take no lessons from the Labour party on criminal justice when, according to the British crime survey, crime in the last 10 years under this Government has fallen 41% in comparison to our predecessor.

The Minister is probably aware that the Lord Chief Justice recently set out in a very honest statement his view of the continuation of the rule of law by the sort of changes that he introduced. He also pointed to some of the difficulties. Will the Minister join me in congratulating and praising the Lord Chief Justice for all that he, specifically, has done in leading the judiciary forward in this difficult area?

Yes. The Lord Chief Justice, Lord Burnett of Maldon, has provided exemplary leadership through these difficult days, keeping our justice system running in a way that many other countries have not. I join my hon. Friend in extending my thanks and congratulations to the Lord Chief Justice, the senior judiciary and, indeed, the country’s entire judiciary for the work that they have done in delivering justice in these last nine or 10 months, and for the work that we are going to do together in the months ahead.

Behind every alleged offence lies a victim, often many. I cannot imagine how hard it must be for them waiting month after month for justice. What is the Minister doing to reassure all those victims, who could be waiting up to four years for a trial, that justice will be done? After this statement finishes, what concrete action will he take to do something differently to address this?

The lead times that the hon. Member is describing are, thankfully, very rare exceptions. As I said, for the most serious cases, where the defendant is remanded in custody, a clear majority of those that had a first hearing in November will have their substantive trial by July this year. We are taking action, we have been taking action, and we will continue to take action to look after victims of the most serious offences— the most distressing ones, such as rape and domestic violence—by making sure that they are supported. I have mentioned the £32 million of additional money that will be spent next year on the victim service, ISVAs and all those things that support victims and witnesses. I have also mentioned the use of section 28 evidence, which means they can give their evidence by video at a very early stage, rather than having to wait a long time. All those things are concrete, tangible actions that will help in the area that she raises today.

I thank my hon. Friend for his statement on recent progress in clearing the covid backlog. There will be victims out there who will look at these headlines and wonder whether they should pursue their cases, or perhaps recent victims of crime wondering whether they should come forward at all, given the delays that the papers have suggested. What is my hon. Friend’s message to victims of crime at this time?

I say to victims: we are there to support you, to hear you and to seek justice for you. As my hon. Friend knows, we are hiring 20,000 extra police officers to keep victims safe. We are keeping the court system running in these difficult circumstances. We are getting back to a period in which magistrates courts are clearing the backlog and, I believe, the Crown court shortly will do so. So I say to victims: justice will be done. Your voice will be heard. Come forward. We are here for you. Do not hesitate—we want to hear your story. We will listen to it, we will act and we will make sure justice is done.

Shockingly, only 1.4% of those reporting rape secure a conviction, and that figure was before the news of deleted police records and the covid court backlog. For the last 10 years, this Government have run down the police, the Crown Prosecution Service, courts, prisons and probation, so what confidence can the Minister give to victims and survivors of sexual violence that they will be able to secure justice?

The Crown Prosecution Service, even before coronavirus, had an extra £85 million a year put into it to enable it to hire 400 more prosecutors. We are hiring an extra 20,000 police officers—we are about a third of the way through that programme already—and the Ministry of Justice had a significant funding increase for the current financial year, announced before coronavirus, running into several hundred million pounds. Those extra resources are being brought to bear, but the hon. Member is right to say, I am afraid, that there is a problem with the charging and prosecution of rape cases, which predates coronavirus. It is a very serious problem. We are taking action through the recruitment of more ISVAs and changes to disclosure rules, but that is not enough on its own. More needs to be done, and the rape review being led by my colleague the Minister for Crime and Policing, which is due to report very shortly, will propose further actions to address the problem that the hon. Member raises. It is a problem. It is not yet fixed. We need to take more action, and we will.

As a former criminal defence solicitor, may I ask my hon. Friend to join me in praising all the practitioners who have contributed so much to access to justice during the pandemic? Many have asked me to ask the Minister what steps the Government have taken and are taking to enhance capacity in the criminal courts. Finally, does he not think it odd that the Scottish National party is asking questions about the English judicial system, despite its call for English questions on English laws?

I have such a choice to choose from! Yes, I join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to the legal profession and the judiciary for the work they have done in these difficult circumstances. To answer the question that his colleagues have put via him, we are opening up Nightingale courts. A total of 19 are open, with 36 additional courtrooms. We have already rolled out the cloud video platform to ensure that hearings can be done remotely, and we are ensuring that Crown court sitting days are not a limitation in this financial year, so we are doing everything we can to open up capacity in the criminal justice system. We are also considering whether we can extend operating hours, and I would be interested to hear my hon. Friend’s views on that, perhaps after today’s question. We are leaving no stone unturned to ensure that our capacity is increased.

North-west Wales’s only justice centre, in Caernarfon, is equipped with small cells, consultation rooms without protective screens, and insufficient space for jurors in one of its two Crown courts. There has recently been a sharp rise in covid cases in the area, and those conditions pose a significant risk to everyone attending court. The chronic underfunding of courts and the covid-induced backlog of cases are combining to create a crisis of justice. Will the Minister therefore commit to developing a recovery strategy for courts in Wales, once the vaccine has significantly reduced the risk to staff and users?

Our recovery plans apply across the whole jurisdiction, but I would like to pay particular tribute to the court system in Wales. When we look at the figures for magistrates courts and Crown courts, we see that Wales is one of the parts of the jurisdiction that is doing either the best or very nearly the best. The courts in Wales are performing extremely well, and I would like to thank and pay tribute to the Welsh judiciary, HMCTS staff and the legal fraternity for the work they have done to make that possible. And yes, the recovery will continue beyond the immediate coronavirus pandemic. There will be work to do that goes on into the future, as the right hon. Lady says, and as the Justice Committee Chairman said. The work will continue across the entire jurisdiction.

I join the Minister in paying tribute to magistrates in Cheshire and Merseyside for the work they are undertaking, and invite him to welcome the new volunteer members of the bench who were sworn in just before Christmas and are now serving in courts in the north-west. Having sat as a magistrate last week myself in Liverpool, I can confirm that the magistrates court and the Nightingale court at St George’s Hall are covid-safe and working very efficiently. Can my hon. Friend outline what steps are being taken to ensure that the most serious cases are heard quickly, both in magistrates courts and Crown courts, so that justice is not delayed?

Before the Minister responds, let me say that I want to try to get everybody in, so we need fairly short questions and, obviously, fairly brisk answers.

I will do my best, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am delighted to hear that the courts in Liverpool are functioning so well. The listing of cases is a matter for the judiciary, but I know that judges are mindful of the points that my hon. Friend raises, and where there are serious and sensitive cases, judges do prioritise those in listing.

I thank all those working in the justice system across the UK. As a former police officer with family who serve, I know the enormous efforts being made to keep the systems functioning. We clearly need more Nightingale courts and proper long-term investment to increase capacity. Can the Minister assure me, however, that the Government will not respond to this backlog by doing anything to either weaken or undermine the fundamental right to trial by jury?

I thank the hon. Lady’s family for their service in the police force. We are, as a nation, grateful for everything they do on the frontline. It is not our intention to undermine those fundamental principles of justice, and even though we are in difficult circumstances, we have not cut corners with those fundamental rights to justice, nor do we plan to.

What measures is my hon. Friend putting in place to secure access to justice, in particular in those cases where liberty is at stake, such as in the mental health tribunal?

We are putting as many resources as we can into cases in the mental health tribunal, and we are using remote hearing technology as much as we can in tribunals generally, including the mental health one. My hon. Friend will have seen the recently published mental health White Paper, which aims to go even further in supporting the rights of people with mental health problems.

Is the Minister aware that many lawyers and people using the courts are absolutely terrified of going to work? These are not covid-safe environments. As co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on miscarriages of justice, I have talked to a lot of people working in our courts. He is being very complacent. Many people think that courts are the place to catch the covid infection. What is he going to do to show the leadership and management to sort that out?

The Government have spent a quarter of a billion pounds this year on making our court estate covid-safe. Public Health England and Public Health Wales find it to be safe. I hope that it reassures the hon. Gentleman’s constituents to know that the number of positive cases in the court system detected among court staff is no different from what we find in the general population. The measures that have been taken are working, and people who need to use the justice system do not need to be afraid in the way he describes.

We are not complacent. We aim to do more, particularly in the area of testing. I urge people using the court system to take a lateral flow test, administered by a local authority testing centre, before going into court where they can, and if they see anything that concerns them, they should report it quickly, because there are reporting processes available. We are committed to making sure that courts are safe, and that work will continue.

Given that the Minister has previously expressed sympathy for the idea of raising the mandatory retirement age for magistrates in particular, may I appeal to him to ensure that when he does so, there is provision to reinstate those magistrates who have retired in the meantime, so that the valuable services of people like my constituent Peter Power JP are not lost to the bench?

As my right hon. Friend knows, we ran a consultation in the autumn on this topic, and I hope we will be able to respond formally to that and move forward in the near future. His suggestion that recently retired magistrates who are under the new retirement age can return is a very good point well made, and I can assure him that it will definitely feature in our thinking when we respond to the consultation.

Nottinghamshire police offered the empty Hucknall police training school to the Courts and Tribunals Service for use as a Nightingale court at zero cost months ago, but it has been rejected, and HMCTS is refusing to discuss alternatives with our chief constable and police and crime commissioner. Why has HMCTS not opened a Nightingale court in Nottinghamshire? Why was that free offer refused, and why is the Minister not working with Notts police to ensure that victims and witnesses are not denied justice?

We have opened 36 Nightingale courts across the country. I am sorry that there is not one so far in the hon. Lady’s county, but I would be willing—delighted, in fact—to speak with her about her proposals for her county. If she would like to make contact, I will happily either exchange correspondence or have a meeting to discuss those ideas. There are sometimes reasons why a particular building is not suitable that are not immediately apparent—it might be to do with custody cells or something else—but I am happy to have a proper, detailed conversation with her about her ideas, to see what can be done. If she follows up with my office or my Department, I will be delighted to do that.

Last year, the Ministry of Justice received calls to temporarily dispense with juries as a way of clearing the backlog in the criminal justice courts. I pay tribute to the Secretary of State for his determination not to do this. However, will my hon. Friend reassure the House that as he works to accelerate the disposal of criminal matters, he remains committed to preserving juries as a fundamental cornerstone of the criminal justice system?

Yes, we do remain committed to the foundation stones of our justice system. Just as we have not cut any corners in delivering justice in these difficult past few months, we do not plan to cut any corners in the future.

The fact that we have had to open the Nightingale courts to increase capacity, welcome though that is, indicates how mistaken it was to close local courts in places like my constituency of Rochdale or in Bury and to concentrate all the magistrates courts in Manchester. Local justice is still a sensible idea. Will the Minister use this opportunity to think about a review of localism and the possibility of reopening local courts?

Some local courts have been brought back into use in response to the pandemic. We have had to use Nightingale courts not because the current court estate is, in itself, inadequate, but because we need to space out a lot more to hold hearings and trials, especially jury trials, in a covid-safe way. Even where particular courts—the Old Bailey is a good example—have quite a large number of courtrooms, we can only use a subset of those in a covid-safe way. We have enough jury courtrooms, but they are sometimes difficult to use in a distanced, covid-safe way, and that is why we have had to open up the Nightingale courts. However, we will see what lessons we can learn, as the hon. Gentleman says. We will keep this under careful review and reflect on it very carefully.

The Minister will understand the attention that has been paid to this issue, but I welcome the highlighting of the historical trends with regard to the hyperbole coming from the Opposition Benches. Does he agree that with many private events venues unable to operate and claiming taxpayer-funded grants and support, it makes sense for the taxpayer to be paying into those as Nightingale courts instead? May I encourage him to hasten the roll-out of such venues?

I thank my hon. Friend for his encouragement. We will certainly do that everywhere that we possibly can. If any Members have ideas for Nightingale courts, then we are happy to talk about them.

The Government like to talk tough on crime, but since 2010 the MOJ has been cut more than any other Department: police funding was cut, recorder sitting days were cut, the CPS was cut, and more than half the courts across England and Wales were closed. The new resources that the Minister has talked about will not make up for those 10 years of cuts. That is not being tough on crime, is it?

I will tell the House what is being tough on crime. According to the crime survey for England and Wales—the only source of crime statistics that the Office for National Statistics says is reliable—the number of crimes in the jurisdiction of England and Wales has gone down by 41% since 2010, and that is the number that matters the most.

I commend the Minister for the work he has done to get jury trials back up and running. I have a constituent who has been called for jury service and is quite worried about their own safety and the safety of those they live with. What information can my hon. Friend give about the steps he is taking to make jury service covid-safe so that my constituents can be reassured when they are undertaking this important public duty?

My hon. Friend can reassure her constituents who have been summoned for jury service that we have plexiglass screens in place to prevent the spread of any infection, distancing in the jury retiring rooms, regular cleaning, of course, and a whole range of further measures. If any of her constituents, or indeed anyone’s constituents, who are summoned for jury service are in some way vulnerable—perhaps over the age of 70 or feeling that their health might be compromised—they should contact the Jury Central Summoning Bureau to discuss that. Although there is no blanket rule in place, where somebody has legitimate concerns, they will be sympathetically listened to.

The backlog of cases in the Crown courts is not only causing concern for victims of crime; the mishandling of the crisis has also piled pressure on to hard-working lawyers and barristers, who already work in high-intensity environments. The enforcement of the enhanced working hours by the Ministry of Justice means that legal professionals have had to work harder and longer hours. The Criminal Bar Association is now considering legal action to urge safer and fairer working conditions. If the Government recognise the value of those leading these trials, what is their response to the Criminal Bar Association?

On the safe working environment, I have already mentioned that Public Health England and Public Health Wales, which are the relevant bodies, find our courts to be safe environments. But as I have said, if any legal practitioner or other court user comes across a particular circumstance that concerns them in a court, there are reporting mechanisms that I strongly encourage them to utilise if required.

In relation to hours, we are carefully considering the options; no decisions have been taken. But I would have thought that many people working in the legal profession would be glad to have additional working hours. Some practitioners say that they have not been earning as much as they ordinarily would because of the coronavirus restrictions, particularly over the summer. Clearly, additional hours provide an opportunity in that regard. But as I say, no decisions have been taken and we continue to think carefully and listen carefully to everybody with an interest in the system.

In Beaconsfield, constituents are keen to see that the wheels of justice keep turning. What investment have the Government made in reducing criminal court backlogs?

I would point to the quarter of a billion pounds that we have invested this year alone—extra money for making sure that our courts are covid safe and have the capacity needed to deliver justice. That is a striking investment and a striking commitment—one that has not only started the court recovery, but one that I hope and expect will sustain it in the months ahead.

I thank the Minister for responding to the urgent question. I am now suspending the House for three minutes to enable the necessary arrangements for the next business to be made.

Sitting suspended.