MPs concerned about the justice system

Work with offenders looks at critical new report from the powerful Public Accounts Committee

Yesterday’s report from the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC)  into the work of the Ministry of Justice did not mince its words; this was how the Committee chose to title its press release:

“Besieged” prisons, probation & courts can’t provide justice for “victims, offenders, taxpayers or society”

The Committee says the MoJ "faces significant risks across the full range of its services, without a clear sense of prioritisation" and huge backlogs that have built up are causing "unacceptably long waiting times for people to access justice".

The report accuses the MoJ of lacking a clear sense of priorities as it attempts to manage significant change in every part of the system - court reform, building new prisons and introducing, again, a new model for delivering probation services (the public and private parts of the probation service, split under the Transforming Rehabilitation programme seven years ago will be reunified on 26 June this year).

The Committee points out that all these reforms are currently at critical stages, and managing them is being made much more difficult by the need to plan for and manage the expected surge in demand across the criminal justice system from the recruitment of 20,000 new police officers.

The report acknowledges that a major programme of building new prisons is underway but emphasises that it is threatened by an "eye-watering maintenance backlog of around £1 billion" which "poses a real threat to achieving a safe and secure prison estate".

The Committee accepts that the response to the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated existing pressures on the justice system. Nevertheless, it says that the backlog in the court system means unacceptably long waiting times for people to access justice. MPs said that they are not convinced that the Ministry of Justice and HM Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS) have sufficiently robust plans in place to manage the challenges in the court system, and for reducing the huge backlogs that have built up. The Committee judged that the MoJ has been over-reliant on the potential of technology to manage the increased demand in the court system. MPs required the MoJ to provide a formal written response within one month setting out its plan to reduce the court backlog “including clear projections and timeframes”.

The report also highlights the Committee’s concerns that restrictive regimes in prisons, which have remained in place of over a year now in attempts to limit the spread of coronavirus, have worsened prisoner wellbeing and mental health. MPs call on the MoJ and Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) to accelerate current initiatives to improve the mental health of people in prison including ways of prisoners maintaining contact with their families and providing one-to-one counselling.

Turning their attention to rehabilitation work, the Committee says that social distancing has made the effective provision of rehabilitation and probation services much more challenging. In a rare word of praise, the MPs said they were “encouraged” by HMPPS’s plans for managing the risks in the prison system and probation services, but again highlighted that the prison maintenance backlog poses a real threat to achieving a safe and secure prison estate.

The Committee notes that after sustained pressure on its finances, the Ministry received a welcome uplift in the 2020 Spending Review, including £4 billion for new prison places and £119 million to support recovery from the pandemic. Even so, PAC members judged that its long-term funding position remains uncertain which in turns hampers its ability to make credible plans to address the risks which face every area of its remit – prison, probation and courts.