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Royal Commission on Criminal Justice

Volume 807: debated on Monday 9 November 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government when they plan to announce (1) the chair, (2) the timeframe, and (3) the terms of reference, for the Royal Commission on criminal justice.

My Lords, the Government remain committed to establishing a royal commission on criminal justice. It has been necessary to prioritise responding to the immediate impact of Covid-19 on the criminal justice system, to ensure that it continues to operate effectively during the pandemic. It is important to learn lessons and use this experience when considering the remit, membership and timing of the royal commission in this context. We will update the House in due course.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her response. I make no apologies for asking the same Question on a number of previous occasions, particularly after reading a sentence in the last annual report of the retiring Chief Inspector of Prisons, Peter Clarke, whose work I salute. When the immediate crisis is over, there will still be an urgent need to address the serious issues that affect the safety and decency of our prisons, the opportunity they offer for rehabilitation and their contribution to reducing reoffending. In her Answer to a Written Question, the Minister seemed to imply that no significant independent review would be implemented before the end of the pandemic. The criminal justice system is in such dire need of an independent review that it cannot afford to wait that long. Will the Minister please tell the House whether my interpretation is correct?

My Lords, the Government made a commitment in their 2019 manifesto to establish a royal commission on criminal justice. We are absolutely committed to doing this. A budget has been allocated for the commission’s work, a team of officials has been established and work is under way on developing the terms of reference and the options for the chairs and commissioners.

My Lords, prisoners serving short sentences for non-violent crimes often get stuck in a so-called revolving door, with serious consequences to their family relationships, housing and rehabilitation. Will the commission be considering reports into the issues around short sentences and consider alternatives to custodial sentences, to enable rehabilitation in the community?

My Lords, I am sorry, but I have to say again that this House will hear when the commission will start, who will be on it, and its terms of reference and scope in due course.

My Lords, Ministry of Justice research has found that prisoners who receive family visits are 39% less likely to reoffend, and it is implementing all the recommendations of my two reviews based on the link between good relationships and rehabilitation. Will the terms of reference of the royal commission explicitly include the importance of prisoners’ and offenders’ family and other significant relational ties, to prevent reoffending and intergenerational crime?

My Lords, I am sorry, but there is no point in me reiterating what I have said before about the terms of reference and scope of the commission. However, I agree with my noble friend that family contacts provide a crucial lifeline for those in our care. That is why we acted quickly in our Covid-19 response, so that prisoners could maintain family contact, despite these exceptional circumstances.

I am glad to hear that the Minister appreciates that there is urgency in this matter. An acute situation exists in all aspects of the justice system. The Covid event has made life more difficult in many parts of the country and prisons have not been spared. Above all, they want to hear reassurance that the royal commission will start its work, which is so urgently needed.

The commission is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to address the challenges in the criminal justice system that noble Lords have brought up today. This work is extremely important, but it is also an opportunity to factor in the real and additional challenges of Covid-19 and to look at the resilience of the system.

With apologies to the noble Baroness, we have to move on. I call the noble Lord, Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames.

My Lords, members of BAME communities are currently treated disproportionately at every stage of our criminal justice process—stop and search, arrest, charging decisions, trial and sentence. In appointing the chair and considering the commission’s membership and its terms of reference, will the Government ensure that we have a commission that is utterly dedicated to tackling all these inequalities?

My Lords, the Government are committed to implementing a broad programme of work to address racial inequalities in the criminal justice system. If the royal commission is to advance the justice system, it must advance it to all users. This includes ensuring that its deliberations are alert to the experiences of minority groups, including BAME people, and issues of equitable access and equitable experience.

My Lords, regardless of the need for a royal commission, does my noble friend agree that the growing backlog of cases in the Crown Courts and the magistrates’ courts means that tens of thousands of trials will not take place until late 2022 or 2023? Why not deploy the hundreds of recorders and deputy magistrates’ courts judges available to tackle the backlog? If defendants realise that their cases are imminent and not some distant prospect, might not many of them plead guilty, to their own, their victims’ and society’s benefit, rather than gaming the system?

My Lords, our thanks go out to the hard-working professionals across the criminal justice system. The Government have published a comprehensive criminal courts recovery plan to tackle the impact of Covid-19 and are boosting the capacity across the justice system. We are fully using our judicial resources including recorders, deputy district judges in magistrates’ courts and magistrates in court recovery. Our courts remain open during the second national lockdown and we will continue to work more flexibly than ever to tackle the backlog and mitigate the impact of the pandemic on our justice system.

My Lords, on 22 May at the Justice Select Committee, the Lord Chief Justice, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Burnett, said that his understanding was that the royal commission would be on the criminal justice process, rather than criminal justice itself. I interpret that to mean that it would include out-of-court decisions, out-of-court disposals and pre-charge disposals. Given that a huge amount of crime never gets anywhere near a court, can the Minister confirm that the review will look at the large number of cases that never get into the courts system?

My Lords, I reiterate that we cannot announce anything today about the royal commission. However, I can, once again, say that a team of officials has been established. It is working on the scope and the terms of reference as well as options for the chair and the commissioners.

My Lords, given that the Minister is announcing yet again somewhat of a perpetual procrastination on the royal commission, can she possibly clear up one matter that her predecessor was not keen to answer? I have asked three times—twice in writing and once on the Floor of the House—how many prisoners remain under IPP sentences in the estate of prisons across the UK and what percentage of those prisoners are black? Given the known fact of harsher sentences—by a factor of three to one—for black offenders, when will this institutional racism end?

My Lords, I cannot answer that. In fact, I had it in another pack on a previous Question. I will certainly write to the noble Lord.

My Lords, as a Minister briefly in the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice, I tried to bring forward proposals 10 years ago to ensure that justice was both swift and sure. The truth is that the system routinely tolerates far too much delay. Efficiency was an issue even before Covid intervened—now it is even more pressing. Will my noble friend the Minister assure me that the commission will look at innovative, new procedures and the use of technology to ensure that justice can be delivered in a timely manner?

I thank my noble friend. I cannot say whether the commission will look at that but the Government are committed to learning from the lessons and building on the innovations brought about by our response to this unprecedented pandemic, such as the good work done in keeping our courts open through our criminal court recovery plan. Since August, magistrates’ courts have been consistently completing more cases than they are receiving. They are dealing with more than 21,000 cases each week and are tackling the backlog of criminal cases.

My Lords, the time allowed for this Question has elapsed. We now come to the second Oral Question. I call the noble Baroness, Lady Northover.