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Nightingale Courts

Volume 688: debated on Tuesday 2 February 2021

What progress he has made on planning for the (a) opening and (b) operation of Nightingale courts. (911684)

Coronavirus has had an enormous effect globally and on public services in this country, which is why this year we have invested an extra quarter of a billion pounds to facilitate court recovery. As an important part of that we have already, as of today, opened up 40 additional Nightingale courtrooms, with a further 20 to open by the end of March.

But there are huge delays in the justice system. Her Majesty’s justice chief inspectors report 53,000 cases waiting to come before Crown courts. In Cambridgeshire, housing associations tell me that when they file papers for community protection notices, they are frequently lost or not even opened. Will the Minister tell me exactly how many Nightingale courts are hearing criminal trials today, and how many will be by the end of 2021?

In relation to criminal cases, I am pleased to report to the House that since August last year, every single month, relentlessly, the number of disposals in the magistrates court has exceeded receipts, so the outstanding caseload in magistrates courts has been declining relentlessly since August, as the system has recovered. We now have more than 290 effective Crown court jury trials, which is more than we had before the pandemic, and just before Christmas disposals exceeded receipts for the first time during the pandemic. That quarter-of-a-billion-pound investment is working and we are getting the justice system back on its feet following the very substantial and understandable challenges that coronavirus has presented.

The Minister already knows that Nottinghamshire’s police and crime commissioner, the chief constable and I are all extremely concerned about the delays in bringing serious criminal cases to trial and the failure to establish a Nightingale court in Nottinghamshire. I look forward to the discussion that he promised last week, but all Members will want to understand why progress is so slow. The Minister talked about 40 courts being open now and 60 by the end of March, but Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service said that 200 would be needed; what is preventing him from addressing that problem? How much investment has the Treasury earmarked for Nightingale courts?

On the question of investment, I have already said that in the current financial year we have spent an extra quarter of a billion pounds on justice recovery. We are hiring an extra 1,600 HMCTS staff and we have more Crown court jury trial rooms operating than we did before the pandemic. I am, of course, carefully studying the proposals for Nightingale courts in Nottingham and look forward to a conversation with the hon. Member on that topic in the near future.

In terms of speeding up the system, even before coronavirus hit us we had increased expenditure on the Crown Prosecution Service by £85 million a year, hiring an extra 400 prosecutors, and we are on track to hire an extra 20,000 police officers. Our commitment not only to dealing with coronavirus but to speeding up the justice system more generally is clear for all to see.

The extra investment is important and should be recognised, and Nightingale courts can make an important addition to court capacity, but does my hon. Friend the Minister agree that most Nightingale courts are not equipped to handle custody cases and therefore many of the most serious trials? Is not the long-term solution sustained investment, over a period of months and years, to make sure that all available physical Crown courts sit the maximum number of days that they can safely sit, and to ensure that there are resources in terms of judiciary, support staff and a safe environment for court users, to make sure that that can be done? Is that not the top priority?

As he is so often, my hon. Friend the Chair of the Justice Committee is correct. Often when a Nightingale court is set up, it does not have the required custody facilities, but it does free up space in our existing Crown court estate, which does have custody facilities, and allow more Crown court or jury trials in which the defendant is remanded to take place in existing facilities.

Crown court sitting days are very important. We have been clear that in the current financial year Crown court sitting days should not impose any constraints on listing and sitting cases. The situation for the coming financial year, starting in April, is the subject of discussions between my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor and the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Burnett of Maldon, but it is fair to say that we are expecting a substantial increase in Crown court sitting days.

The Government’s answer to the question about the scale of the crisis in our justice system is that the backlog has been higher in the past, but the Minister knows that this is just a distraction. In 2010, Crown court cases took, on average, 391 days to complete. By 2019, the Government had closed half of the courts and had 27,000 fewer sitting days, meaning that each case took an average of 511 days. A total of 30% fewer cases were completed, but they took 75% longer. Each year that the Minister’s party is in government, justice for victims is further delayed. How can he be so complacent, announcing just 40 extra rooms? We have 20 Nightingale courts and the head of Her Majesty’s Courts Service said that we needed 200. When are we going to get them?

A range of other measures are being used, not least the roll-out of the cloud video platform, which led last week to more than 20,000 remote hearings across all jurisdictions, and, as I have said, 290 jury court rooms, which is more than we had before. The right hon. Gentleman asked about the past, but he rather conveniently skated over the fact that the outstanding caseload in the Crown court before the pandemic in 2020 was 39,000, whereas in 2010, under the last Labour Government, it was 47,000. He asked about the number of cases and the number of cases being disposed of, but he neglected to mention that crime, according to the crime survey—the only Office for National Statistics-certified source of statistics—had fallen from 9.5 million cases in 2010 to 5.6 million in 2020 under a Conservative Government delivering reductions in crime. I notice that, last week, the shadow Justice Secretary talked about wartime juries of seven. I also noticed that, in June of last year, writing in The Guardian newspaper—

Order. Minister, I think you could have saved a little bit for later. It is a very full answer, but I now need to make progress.