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Royal Commission on the Criminal Justice System

Volume 813: debated on Tuesday 6 July 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what progress they have made with the establishment of the Royal Commission on the Criminal Justice System announced in the 2019 Queen’s Speech.

My Lords, the Government are absolutely committed to the delivery of this key manifesto pledge. At the onset of the pandemic, our focus was rightly on ensuring that the criminal justice system continued to operate in a Covid-safe environment. Significant new programmes of work were launched to support recovery and build back a better system. We believe it is right to focus on these priorities over the coming months, so we have paused work on the royal commission for now.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that disappointing reply. The last time I asked his predecessor this Question, I was told that a committee in the Ministry of Justice was looking into the issue. I must admit that I deplore the deliberate discourtesy to Her Majesty the Queen of asking her to announce something which the Government have no intention of implementing.

My Lords, I am afraid that it is now customary for me to be more disappointing than my predecessor, but there was no discourtesy to Her Majesty the Queen or, indeed, anybody else. The Government do intend to hold a royal commission: the question is, when. We are still in the middle of a pandemic so we are focused on its effects and have paused the work on the royal commission.

My Lords, I welcome the noble Lord’s Question. As one who is soon to depart this place, I hope that he continues to pursue this and other such matters with his customary vigour and determination. Noble Lords will know of the significant contribution of voluntary and charitable groups, including those which are faith based, to work in the criminal justice sector. Many of these organisations are keen for the work of the royal commission to proceed as soon as possible in order to provide a framework for future work. Can the Minister confirm that such groups will have an opportunity to contribute in a substantive way to the royal commission’s work?

My Lords, I am well aware of the work that the voluntary sector does in this area, particularly faith-based groups. When the royal commission launches, it will be seeking views and evidence from a wide range of stakeholders within the criminal justice system and beyond, including the voluntary sector and the faith-based groups the right reverend Prelate referred to.

My Lords, I do not know whether I am a stakeholder or whether I can see anything being built back better, but while the Government are pausing they really should concentrate on improving the condition of the prison estate. It is woefully overcrowded: 85,000 to 90,000 prisoners are now living in squalid conditions. Will my noble friend please persuade the Ministry of Justice and the Government as a whole to get on and do something about the disgraceful state of our prisons?

My Lords, I am not sure that we need any persuading, because I am not sure that there is anything between my noble and learned friend and myself on the importance of a proper prison estate. We have of course had to pause various programmes because of the Covid pandemic. We are now seeking to reinstate those programmes and—if I may use the phrase—build back a better and more appropriate prison environment.

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow my noble and learned friend Lord Garnier. I was going to congratulate the Government on deciding that there should be a royal commission, but I am now nervous as to whether it will be pursued as it should be. Royal commissions have obtained a reputation for delay, and this is an unfortunate precedent for what is happening now. I hope, however, that we will soon hear what the royal commission’s terms of reference are. I urge the Government that when they determine those terms, they make it clear that there is a clear distinction between criminal and civil law. All too often, that boundary is being blurred—indeed, it could be said that there has been considerable trespass on that boundary. A clear statement by the royal commission could remedy that situation.

The noble and learned Lord will have heard that we have paused work on the royal commission. When we reactivate it, the terms of reference will be an important part of it. He is right to say that there is a distinction between civil and criminal law but with great respect, I am not sure whether it is as sharp as he identifies. The noble and learned Lord will be aware that trespass itself can be both criminal and civil.

My Lords, as important as publishing the terms of reference of the royal commission is, when will the Government also tackle effectively the immediate problem of the backlog in criminal trials? What is the Government’s response to the Lord Chief Justice’s comments on the temporary reduction in the size of juries and perhaps the use of Diplock courts, with the agreement of the defendant?

The noble and learned Lord is right that we have to make sure that people have their cases heard within an appropriate time. We have opened 60 Nightingale courts, and we now actually have more rooms available for jury trials than we had before the pandemic. The important point is to make sure that we are running the criminal justice system as hot as we possibly can, and that is exactly what we plan to do over the coming year. There is no limit on the number of sitting days in the criminal courts this year.

My Lords, the Minister may be disappointed but I am dissatisfied in the extreme with the fact that the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, was told in November last year that staff had been appointed to this royal commission. If staff have been appointed, have they now been laid off and are doing other jobs? Why have they not yet prepared the terms of reference and the terms by which the commissioners might be appointed? Surely the royal commission is not a programme which is just paused; it is far more significant. I think the Government need to recognise that, because we are being let down badly.

I agree, with respect, with the noble Lord that the royal commission is extremely important. That is why we want to make sure that we have proper and focused terms of reference and that the work to set up the royal commission is done at a time when we can do it properly. There is a huge amount of work being done at the moment throughout the criminal justice system to respond to an unprecedented pandemic. I suggest that it is right in those circumstances to pause the work on the royal commission; we will come back to it after we have dealt with the pandemic.

My Lords, given that the number of prisoners in England and Wales is predicted to rise to a post-war high of nearly 99,000 by 2026—as reported in the Daily Telegraph—can the Minister comment on what the priorities will be for the royal commission on the criminal justice system, and whether these need to be prioritised or added to in light of the impact of the Covid epidemic on the criminal justice system and this predicted increase in the number of prisoners?

My Lords, the last point the noble Baroness made is absolutely right; I sought to make it earlier. Of course, the priorities for the royal commission need to be prioritised and perhaps added to in light of the impact of the Covid pandemic. That will obviously include the effect on the prison estate as well.

My Lords, there have been three Questions in your Lordships’ House to the Ministry of Justice in the last two weeks: on inaccessible child trust funds, difficulties about marriage law, and now the criminal justice system. In all three areas, Members of your Lordships’ House described the talk from the Ministry of Justice and then the doing of nothing. On criminal justice, the Chief Inspector of HMCPSI described the pre-Covid backlog as “unacceptable”. A few days ago, the Lord Chancellor apologised for the massive reduction in rape prosecutions. A few days before that, the chair of the Bar Council said that unless the Government commit urgently to massive investment in the criminal justice system, the backlog will get worse. There is currently a backlog of 59,000 cases in the Crown Court. When will that backlog be dealt with, and what additional investment will be put into the criminal justice system to deal with it?

My Lords, the noble and learned Lord raises three issues. Child trust funds were set up under a Labour Government and, as the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, pointed out to this House, no thought whatever was given to the impact of the legislation—the Mental Capacity Act—on people’s access to those funds, so we are sorting that out. Marriage law goes back to 1847. The Law Commission is looking at it, and we are sorting that out as well. A few weeks ago, I laid before the House regulations to enable people whose marriages had been delayed to get married outdoors this year. The criminal justice system is in the middle of a pandemic, and we are responding to that as well. The noble and learned Lord is, with respect, quite wrong to lump these three quite disparate matters together.