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Effective and Accountable Justice

Volume 700: debated on Thursday 16 September 2021

3. What steps she is taking with the Secretary of State for Justice to ensure an effective and accountable criminal justice system. (903458)

Together with colleagues in the Home Office, the Crown Prosecution Service and the Ministry of Justice, we have developed a criminal justice action plan to drive system recovery as we rebuild after the pandemic. Progress against the action plan will be measured by a set of criminal justice scorecards, which will be published quarterly from this autumn. This approach will enable a cross-system response to dips in performance and hold each part of the system accountable for improvement.

As a former Scottish Justice Secretary, I am well aware of Scotland’s distinct legal jurisdiction, but broadcasting and human rights are reserved responsibilities. Craig Murray, a Scottish journalist, has been jailed for eight months without appeal. Is the Attorney General able to make any representations to ensure that the European convention on human rights and other protocols are followed when they apply to such rights and powers?

We must ensure that all journalists have the right to express themselves and work in a free society. We are incredibly proud of that tradition in this country and our human rights regime rightly protects freedom of expression. I am happy to discuss this vital matter further with the hon. Gentleman.

I welcome the Attorney General back to her place. I am sure she will agree that it is also right to pay particular tribute to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Northampton North (Michael Ellis) for the way in which he discharged his duties as the Attorney General to the very high standards and with the impartiality of that office—it could not have been done better.

Does the Attorney General agree that for an effective system it is important that we have not only a fully joined-up plan but effective funding for all parts of the justice system? What steps is she taking to ensure a joint approach to getting the best possible outcome for the Law Officers’ Department, the CPS and the Ministry of Justice in the coming spending review?

My hon. Friend is right to highlight the need for resources as we rebuild after the pandemic. We need to ensure that the court backlog, which we all accept exists, is dealt with. That is why we have been working across Government, with the sector and with local bodies to ensure that comprehensive support is available for victims and witnesses. After all, it is victims for whom we are here and for whom we need to fight.

I welcome the Attorney General back to her place—it is good to see her—and thank the right hon. and learned Member for Northampton North (Michael Ellis) for all his work during her maternity leave.

The court backlog is at a record high, with victims waiting years for their day in court. The latest Government data reveals that in the year ending March 2021, a staggering 1 million victims of crime abandoned their case because they lost faith in the justice system. The CPS budget has been cut by 33% in real terms over the past decade. Ahead of the comprehensive spending review, what specifically will the Attorney General say to the Treasury? What does she say specifically to the millions of victims who have lost faith in the system?

As I say, we accept that there is a court backlog, and it is a priority for this Government as we build back from the pandemic. The CPS has implemented a number of changes, with cross-system partners, to assist the criminal justice system in its response to covid. I was pleased that the independent inspectorate praised the CPS response to the pandemic. The CPS has recently introduced specific measures to accelerate its management of cases in the context of the pandemic.

The Chancellor has been clear that there will need to be tough choices as we come out of the pandemic. The public expect us to deliver the highest-quality services at the best value, ensuring that every pound is well spent. The CPS has received funding uplifts in the past three spending rounds, including £85 million to allow it to recruit more than 350 new prosecutors to boost capacity and support court recovery.

I have listened to what the Attorney General has said, but say to her that the criminal justice system is on its knees. In rape cases, 44% of victims are pulling out before their case gets to court. The latest Crown Prosecution Service data shows that it would take the Government 22 years to reach their own target of returning to 2016 rape prosecution levels—22 years! It is absolutely not good enough, and we see this Government repeatedly fail rape victims. Will the Attorney General tell me what she plans to do to ensure that the Government meet their target, or will she sit on her hands and oversee the further decriminalisation of rape?

The assertion that there has been a decriminalisation of rape is simply not backed up by the facts and is a very damaging narrative to proffer. It is very important that we recognise that, yes, there have been delays in the system, and I recognise how distressing those delays are. I want to reassure the hon. Lady that progress is being made to boost court capacity and to enable cases to continue to flow through the system. That includes harnessing technology, such as the cloud video platform, making use of the Nightingale courts and exploring the use of extended operating hours in court. The special measure allowing vulnerable victims, including rape victims and those who are witnesses in those cases, to pre-record their cross-examination evidence to reduce waiting times, which is under section 28, has been rapidly rolled out to cover all 82 Crown courts as of 23 November last year, and the CPS was a key partner in ensuring that that roll-out went smoothly.

I welcome the Attorney General back to her place and wish her growing family all the very best.

Does the Attorney General agree that any effective criminal justice system must ensure that cases are brought in a timely manner? Will she join me in welcoming the £50 million announced by the Scottish Government to clear the court backlog, and outline any advice that she has given to her Cabinet colleagues to ensure that victims can access effective and prompt justice through the court system?

There has been a real focus on dealing with the backlog and ensuring a better flow of cases right from reporting at the police station through to conviction. That was most pertinently highlighted in the recent rape review published by this Government with a particular focus on those victims. There have been a huge number of changes implemented by the CPS with cross-system partners to assist the criminal justice response to covid. As I have mentioned, it includes the interim charging protocol, which is designed to be clear that the high-harm crimes and covid-related crimes, such as spitting and assaults on essential workers, are prioritised. That will be and has been an effective step forward in dealing with the backlog.