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Courts IT System

Volume 653: debated on Wednesday 23 January 2019

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Justice if he will make a statement on the failure of the central courts IT system.

I am grateful for the opportunity to update the House on the IT issues facing the Ministry of Justice over recent days.

I start by apologising to those who have been affected by the intermittent disruption, which was caused by an infrastructure failure in our supplier’s data centre. Although services have continued to operate and court hearings have continued, we know how frustrating this is for everyone. The issue is that some of our staff in the Courts and Tribunals Service, the Legal Aid Agency, probation and Ministry of Justice headquarters have been unable to log on to their computers, but we have contingency plans in place to make sure that trials can go ahead as planned.

The Prison Service has not been affected and—to correct inaccurate reporting—criminals have not gone free as a result of the problem. We have been working closely with our suppliers, Atos and Microsoft, to get our systems working again, and yesterday we had restored services to 180 court sites, including the largest ones. Today, 90% of staff have working computer systems. Work continues to restore services and we expect the remainder of the court sites to be fully operational by the time they open tomorrow morning. We are very disappointed that our suppliers have not yet been able to resolve the network problems in full.

This afternoon, the permanent secretary, Sir Richard Heaton, will meet the chief executive of Atos and write personally to all members of the judiciary. I am very grateful to all our staff who have been working tirelessly and around the clock, alongside our suppliers, to resolve the issues.

I thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting the urgent question, and the Minister for her reply.

Members will be concerned by the failure of the multiple vital IT systems that our courts require, including systems supplied by Atos and Microsoft. Indeed, I saw those failures at first hand last week, when I visited one of the Crown courts. The chair of the Criminal Bar Association described our courts system as being “on its knees” following that failure, and blamed

“savage cuts to the MoJ budget”.

Reports in The Times suggested that there is a risk of defendants being released before trial. Will the Minister confirm whether any defendants have been released without trial? What costs has the failure incurred? Have Atos and Microsoft paid any penalties for failures on the contracts so far? Can the Minister guarantee that all costs arising from the failures will be recovered from the suppliers?

Of course, such failings do not happen in a vacuum. The Ministry of Justice has faced cuts of 40% in the decade to 2020. The Government are pursuing a £1.2 billion courts reform programme, which has seen hundreds of courts close, thousands of court staff cut and a rush to digitise many court processes. Are the plans to cut 5,000 further court staff by 2023 still being pursued?

Will the Minister explain why the Government ignored the Association of Her Majesty’s District Judges, which called for courts closures to be stopped until

“fully functioning IT systems are demonstrated to be up and running successfully”?

Finally, will the Minister now commit to a moratorium on further cuts, closures and digitisation of our courts until a Bill has been brought to the House so that we can fully scrutinise the Government’s plans?

I am grateful for the opportunity to answer the points that the hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) raised. She suggested that the problems are related to cuts—they are not. They relate to an issue in a contractual supplier’s system. She suggested that defendants were being released. I hope she heard in my initial reply that that was incorrect reporting. No prisoners have been released. The prison system is different from the MOJ’s and I repeat that no prisoners have been released as a result of the problem.

The hon. Lady asked about penalties. As I said, the permanent secretary is meeting the supplier’s chief executive this afternoon and of course we will look carefully at the contracts, which include penalty clauses.

The hon. Lady suggested that the issue is related to a rush to digitisation. I would like to clarify that Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service operates on a legacy system, which needs to be updated because issues arise in it, and we are therefore investing significantly in our digitisation programme to ensure that our courts system runs well in the future.

The hon. Lady talked about cuts. I started with that and I will end with it, as she did. We are not cutting our justice system and our Courts Service. Indeed, as she rightly identified, we are putting £1 billion into it.

I am glad to have the Minister’s reassurance that this situation has nothing to do with the common platform, as that is indeed the case. Does she accept that senior members of the judiciary, as I know from my conversations with them, are most anxious that the roll-out of the common platform proceeds, because the difficulties come from the failures of the old system? Will she ensure that the new initiatives that we are bringing in, such as digital portals, are fully and robustly tested before they come into use, so that court users can have full confidence in them?

As always, my hon. Friend the Chairman of the Justice Committee makes important points. I am pleased to clarify that the common platform is not affected—it is being trialled—and that in fact the reform programme in its totality is not affected by these issues. Our divorce and probate application systems are not affected. As I said, the point of reform is to ensure that these systems work in future—my hon. Friend referred to the need to ensure that our systems work—and we will be carrying out a rigorous evaluation of our court reform programme.

Prisons being issued urgent notifications, private probation services needing bailouts, trials collapsing because of disclosure failures, MOJ staff on strike over the failure to pay them the London living wage—and now the court system is in disarray. When will the Minister finally understand that the 40% real-terms cut to the MOJ budget since 2010 has consequences, and that austerity has left the justice system at breaking point?

As I identified at the start, this issue was caused by an infrastructure failure in our supplier’s data centre. It is not the result of cuts. My Department received some funding in relation to the building of a prison in the recent Budget, and it received investment into the courts service and into its estates. We are investing £1 billion in our courts service.

I should declare that as a judge my husband has been affected by these outages, and I am lobbied heavily on this matter at home. In the light of that, I would be grateful if the Minister confirmed my understanding that 75% of court staff are now back online and working normally. When will the rest of them be?

I am disappointed that my hon. Friend’s husband, whom I should declare I know, is affected, and I send my apologies to him. Indeed, more seriously, I send my apologies to all court staff, judges and professionals who have been affected. This has obviously been a disruption to their business and I am truly sorry for that. As my hon. Friend mentioned, we are working hard to ensure that these issues are resolved, and in fact 90% of staff have working computer systems today. We expect our court sites to be fully operational by the time they open tomorrow morning.

It looks as though an end to domestic lobbying is in sight. I am sure the hon. Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis) is extremely appreciative of that important fact.

We have heard that this incident has caused a great deal of disruption for the judicial system, and the Minister has apologised to staff, but will she also take into account the very many individuals who are awaiting court sentencing and appearances? They have undergone unbelievable stress and gone through a great deal of personal sacrifice and disruption because of this incident, so will she apologise to them and ensure that future investment in the Ministry of Justice ensures that this does not happen again?

The hon. Lady makes an important point. It is of course users who are at the heart of the justice system. Professionals work in the justice system, but they and the system work for justice for individuals. This morning I was at a court that was functioning—I was sitting at a hearing—and of course there is that continuous reminder that we are there to serve people who want to get justice done.

I declare an interest, because I am still a member of the Criminal Bar Association. I am grateful to the Minister for her assurances that this situation is not related to cuts, but the simple truth of it is that if we had a better, more fully funded system, there would be proper back-ups and this rumbling problem would have been sorted out a long time ago. I am afraid I share the views of the chairman of the Criminal Bar Association. The system is now reaching crisis point and funding is primarily a problem, but it is not just about money; we could spend the money in better ways. I would be grateful if the Minister would meet me and other members of the criminal Bar in particular to discuss how we can sort out what is, I am afraid to say, a broken system.

My right hon. Friend has a great deal of expertise in this subject area and I am always happy to meet her and to speak with her. She talked about back-ups, and I should say that it is because we have recently invested in the courts service that we had wi-fi back-up. The issue was in relation to the server, but because we have invested in wi-fi in courts up and down the country, many staff could continue to work during this incident.

My right hon. Friend mentioned the criminal Bar; I am a big supporter of the independent criminal Bar, as I am of solicitor advocates, who play a vital role in the delivery of justice, which is why we have recently given them £23 million more for the advocates’ graduated fee scheme. We are investing in encouraging them and hope that they continue to do their work.

My right hon. Friend mentioned the CBA; I work closely with the CBA and have met its representatives on several occasions recently, and I also work closely with the Bar Council. I want to continue to work closely with them as we move forward.

As we must do this, may I declare a personal, rather than a pecuniary, interest? I have been married to a senior member of the west London magistracy for many, many years. Mrs Pound is incandescent with fury, because those on her particular bench find it impossible to operate within the common platform. The iPads with which they have been issued are useless, and many defence barristers and solicitors are having to print out copies of the documentation before they come to court. Will the Minister accept that it is our unpaid magistracy who have been making this system work despite the IT nightmare? Will she take this opportunity, on behalf of Her Majesty’s Government, to pay tribute to and thank the magistrates for making a broken system work?

I am honoured that we have so many well-connected Members of Parliament present in the House to share with us their personal knowledge of the justice system. I thank the hon. Gentleman’s wife for all the work she does. I do indeed recognise the significant contribution that the magistracy makes. I was pleased to go to the Magistrates Association annual conference late last year. Magistrates do indeed make a significant contribution to our criminal justice system.

I very much hope that the hon. Gentleman will present a copy of the Official Report, when it appears tomorrow, to Mrs Pound, or Maggie, as I think she is known.

The listing team in Chelmsford administers the calendars and diaries for all Essex and Suffolk magistrates and county courts—that is more than 30 different courts sitting every day—so when the computer systems have been down it has been an administrative nightmare. I am glad to hear that nine out of 10 computers are back up and running and that we expect full service back tomorrow. Will my hon. and learned Friend confirm that this incident was not because of a cyber-attack and that there has been no loss of data, and will she let us know what is being done to make sure that this situation does not recur?

As a diligent MP working for her constituency, my hon. Friend raised the particular issue of the Chelmsford courts with me yesterday, and I was pleased to tell her yesterday that Chelmsford Crown court was included in the sites that were fixed last night. We are currently working on, and perhaps might even have fixed, the combined family and county court, and hope that they will be online. I can confirm to my hon. Friend that this incident was not the result of a cyber-attack.

Does the Minister accept that it is not quite fair to characterise this as a single or unusual event, and that her Department has been receiving reports of failures in the criminal justice secure email service for at least six months now?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. In fact, there were two separate incidents in relation to the HMCTS-MOJ site: one that occurred on Tuesday night, which was fixed by the weekend; and a separate incident that occurred on Sunday, which we are continuing to work through. The issue he identifies in relation to the secure system is, again, separate and unrelated. Some 75,000 people were affected by that, which is only 12.5%. By Monday, we had restored user access to 40,000 of those people. We restored access to the remainder on Tuesday, and we have dealt with the issue. I hope people will identify that issues are occurring, and HMCTS is working through the night to resolve these issues. As I have mentioned, we hope that they will be fully resolved by tomorrow morning.

I, too, declare my interest as a member of the Bar and one who well remembers the frustrations caused by the legacy system. Will my hon. and learned Friend reassure me that her teams are working around the clock to make sure that all court users have access to the reliable IT system they need?

I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. Issues have arisen, but HMCTS staff have been working around the clock to resolve them. They have been working extremely hard, and I would like to thank them for that work. Issues have arisen, but we have attempted to resolve them as quickly as possible.

What compensation will be made available to victims of crime who wait so long to get justice, and to other court users who often give up days of work? There is a massive loss of productivity in the system already, and issues such as this continue to aggravate the situation. Will there be a compensation system that is open, so that people can claim back for such lost productivity and make other claims they may have in relation to this matter?

The issue that has arisen relates mainly to email systems. There has been minimal disruption, I am told, to the courts system as a whole. Obviously, where issues arise, we will investigate them and look into them thoroughly. Our whole programme of reform is intended to ensure that the users are at the heart of the system and that we ensure swift justice, with effective hearings delivered in the most efficient manner to ensure justice for everybody.

I must say it is a relief to hear that the Prison Service was not affected by this problem. Will the Minister reassure me completely that there is no prospect that any criminal hoping this may allow them to escape justice or be released slightly earlier will benefit? In essence, they will be very disappointed.

I am very glad to give the confirmation that the Prison Service system is a different IT system and no defendant has been released as a result.

My constituents have contributed £43 million to the stalled digitisation process, thanks to the closure and sale of Hammersmith magistrates and county courts. Their reward is to travel for an hour or more to courts at Clerkenwell or Hendon. The Minister says the courts system is running well; it is not: it is in freefall. Will she at least postpone any further closures until she can guarantee a working service?

I know the hon. Gentleman does a great deal of work in this area; he is very involved in the local law centre and has a great deal of knowledge. He will therefore be aware that we have recently consulted on what our guidelines should be in relation to any future closures. We will be guided by the response to that consultation, which is due out shortly.

Remote and rural constituencies will often benefit most from technology—especially in my own constituency, where the regrettable closure of Skegness court means there is even greater reliance on it. May I urge the Minister to bear in mind that the use of technology will always produce more good than harm if it is done properly, and that she should proceed on the basis of that maxim?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Technology has opened the door—not just in justice, but in all areas of our lives—to more efficient and progressive ways of doing things. However, technology should always be our servant, not our master. We in the Ministry of Justice would like to ensure that technology will enable answers, not frustrate traditional ones. The technology that will be rolled out in hearings—if we have video hearings, for example—will always be used at the discretion of the judge, and we will ensure that it enables, not restricts, justice.

Earlier this week, a constituent contacted me because of MOJ cuts. He is concerned that Newcastle county court is at least 22 staff short and is two months behind with its workload. As well as overstretched staff having the added problem of the IT failure, he is extremely concerned that they cannot deliver for the people they are there to serve. How does the Minister respond to these legitimate concerns?

Of course, where there are particular concerns in any particular court, I am happy to look at them. If the hon. Lady would like to write to me or meet me, I would be happy to discuss any particular concerns.

The Minister says that she wants the user at the heart of the system. Under this Government, Wrexham in north-east Wales is run by an administrator in Llanelli in south-west Wales. That has led to our having a magistrates court without any cells—the equivalent of a pub without any beer—and the result is that the users have to go to a different town. All of this is as a result of Ministry of Justice incompetence. How can we have confidence in the administration of the justice system when this sort of chaos is an everyday occurrence?

A number of people, such as the hon. Gentleman, have referred to court closures. In circumstances where 41% of our courts were used at less than half their available capacity last year, it is incumbent on a Government to look at where they should use their resources and where they should use their resources well. All money from court closures goes back into the courts system, and we ensure that the money is spent and spent well on our justice system.

When the Government closed Scunthorpe magistrates and family courts, against the wishes of local people, much was made of the way in which digitisation would mitigate the risk of threats to access to justice. Given this shambles, what evaluation is being done of whether, where there have been court closures, access to justice is still being delivered effectively?

It is vital that we continue to reform our courts and to take advantage of what technology offers us. We have had extremely positive reports from people who are using our online services, such as our online applications for probate, online applications for divorce and—I was in a social security tribunal this morning—online applications for social security tribunals. There is the fact that people can get updated on their social security hearing on their mobile phone, and the fact that we are now piloting the ability of a judge to email and liaise with a tribunal applicant before they get to court so that their hearing is ready, effective and useful when they get there. We of course evaluate this at each stage. Our systems are user-based and have been adapted because of the feedback we have had from users in the course of using them, but we will be evaluating the reform programme overall.