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Criminal Justice: Royal Commission

Volume 818: debated on Monday 7 February 2022


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, as I said in answer to the noble Lord’s Question on 6 July last year, due to the pandemic, we slowed work to establish the royal commission. Significant new programmes of work were established to support recovery and build back a better system. In the last six months, we have undertaken several new programmes, and our focus is on delivering these priorities over the coming months.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. I make no apologies for asking the Question again, because, as I have said before, I regarded it as extremely discourteous of the Government to ask Her Majesty the Queen to make an announcement which they had no intention of implementing. I had no notice of the intention of the noble Lord, Lord Bach, to bring up this matter on Report on the police Bill. I invite the Minister to say what he said in reply to that intervention.

My Lords, since the Queen’s Speech in 2019, there has been the small matter of a global pandemic, which has affected the criminal justice system very substantially. We reacted to that: we put in place particular new ways of working. We have taken a lot of that work forward: there is the Second Reading this afternoon of the Judicial Review and Courts Bill, which contains more reforms to the criminal justice system. I therefore think, with respect, that it is a little unfair to say—in fact, it is inaccurate—that we have no intention of implementing that. As to what I said in response to the noble Lord, Lord Bach, in Committee, I stand by that, absolutely.

My Lords, in the Council of Europe’s recent report on penal matters, England and Wales scored very high in a number of categories, including prison population, prison density, suicide rates, the proportion of prisoners not serving a final sentence and the rate of admissions per 100,000 inhabitants. It is almost a world-beating record. Will the Minister ensure that the terms of reference of any royal commission that is set up include an in-depth consideration of sentence inflation in our courts?

My Lords, one of the other things on which we score extremely high internationally is the quality of our judges. That ought to be mentioned as well. So far as prisons are concerned, we published a prisons White Paper in the last six months, which deals with a number of the matters raised by the noble Lord. As to the terms of reference of any royal commission, of course I have heard what the noble Lord has said.

My Lords, I refer to my interest as director of the Sikh prison chaplaincy service. Reducing reoffending should be a central aim in any criminal justice system. Does the Minister agree that chaplains of all faiths can play an important role in this by giving purpose and direction to offenders? Does he further agree that there should be equal access to resources and pastoral support for all faiths in a truly multifaith chaplaincy and probation service?

My Lords, I am grateful to have the opportunity to express real gratitude for the work done by prison chaplains, particularly during the pandemic when the chaplaincy had to move from face-to-face to telephone or video conferencing. Access is of course ultimately a matter for prison governors, but if the noble Lord has particular concerns in this area, he knows that he can speak to me; I am very happy to have a discussion with him.

My Lords, disproportionate outcomes for racially minoritised people in the criminal justice system are well documented, including of course in the Lammy review. Does the Minister agree that care should be taken to prioritise these concerns through the royal commission?

My Lords, I have said on a number of occasions from this Dispatch Box that racial inequality in our criminal justice system goes back many decades. We are absolutely focused on it, and I am sure that any royal commission in this area would want to look at it.

My Lords, the pandemic demonstrated more clearly than ever the importance to prison morale and effective rehabilitation of family and other significant relationships. Benefits to prisoners of access to video-calling technology have also been proven. Building back better requires sharpening the emphasis on the third leg of the rehabilitative stool of relationships. Will this and access to technology, as an obvious requirement in a world that is being transformed daily, be key principles in the royal commission?

My Lords, we know that prisoners who maintain contact with their families and communities behave better in prison and have lower reoffending rates when out of prison. During the pandemic, we rolled out video-calling technology to all prisons. We have committed to retaining this long term.

My Lords, I am afraid that I cannot go further than what I have already said. We are looking at it, and we want to make sure that we maintain our current programmes. In the last six months we have published a victims consultation, the prison White Paper and national criminal justice scorecards. We have the Judicial Review and Courts Bill this afternoon, and there is a consultation on juries in the consultation on human rights. That is not too bad, for the last six months.

My Lords, a significant proportion of people on community sentences report having mental health or drug addiction issues, yet very few of those community sentences include mental health or drug treatment requirements, partly because these services are simply not available in many areas. This must change if we want community sentences to be fully effective in helping offenders turn their lives around. Will the royal commission on criminal justice include a review of community-based sentencing?

My Lords, I am reluctant to write the terms of reference for the royal commission from the Dispatch Box, but we do know that such services are absolutely essential for people who have come out of prison. My department works closely with the DHSC to ensure proper join-up when people leave prison, so that they can access services in the community.

My Lords, might it not have been sensible to write the terms of reference for the royal commission in 2019, when it was announced? I do not see how Covid would have prevented the establishment of a royal commission, or how any of the splendid initiatives my noble friend has mentioned would have prevented the commission operating. This an independent group to look at the whole thing across the board, and which does not reflect the Government’s views but looks at all the arguments, surely.

My Lords, as I understand it the royal commission would need significant resource from the department. The people working on the royal commission were deployed on other work during the pandemic, and that is what they are still doing. The last royal commission was one on this House, and it reported in 2000. I hope that that has not put us off royal commissions in principle. We are still focused on having a royal commission on criminal justice in due course.

My Lords, could we consider the possibility that we are looking at crime and prisons in the wrong way? There is a lovely printing term, arsy-versy—which is not a rude word. Can we not recognise that, for a specific period, we have a captive audience and we could change them? Many people who have come out of prison have been useful to the community. We need learned experience to help us in the world of crime.

My Lords, I can only agree with that. We have recently looked very carefully at our education programme in prisons, which has undergone an absolute revamp. Minister Victoria Atkins in the other place has had a lot to say about that. Prison is an opportunity to turn lives around. In addition to punishment, we must never forget that part of it is about rehabilitation.