Department for Constitutional Affairs - Health Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60-79)


17 OCTOBER 2006

  Q60  Dr Whitehead: Do you think the Department, as far as PSA targets are concerned, also has a duty to defendants? One of your targets, of course, is to make sure that a certain number of cases are brought to justice. Does that include responsibility for defendants?

  Alex Allan: We have a very obvious responsibility to defendants in terms of providing Legal Aid, which we do. Clearly, part of justice is to ensure that people do get a fair trial and that is a very key part of how we operate. Equally, at the same time, I think one of the changes that has been brought about more recently has been an increased focus on victims and some of the witnesses to particular crimes and trying to make sure that they get the full support and that they are not just treated as adjuncts to a process that is wholly between the state and the defendant. I think there has been a change of focus, but we still do spend very large sums on criminal Legal Aid in terms of supporting defendants to make sure they do get a fair trial.

  Q61  Dr Whitehead: This is to do perhaps with the emphasis on customers. You were mentioning earlier the change in emphasis towards customers in the Department.

  Alex Allan: The change in emphasis towards customers has been, as I say, much more focused on saying that we have not done enough to think about victims and witnesses, for example. Across the criminal justice system we are now doing a lot more to make sure that victims are given support from the moment the crime is committed, through all the charging process and then ultimately the court process, and we are trialling various things like victims' advocates to enable victims to have a voice in the court where they might not otherwise be able to do, in murder trials, for example, and similarly, we are looking very much within the civil justice system. For example—I know you have done an inquiry into this—how does it feel to people who are using our courts? I think it should be seen really as a shift away from the historic focus that the courts were there to basically support judges and magistrates and the legal profession to one that says we are part of a system that has much wider objectives.

  Q62  Dr Whitehead: So are guilty defendants customers?

  Rod Clark: Our PSA target 2 does explicitly talk about the need not to compromise fairness in the way that it delivers justice, and we deliver confidence in the justice system, and clearly, under the strap line, justice does require delivery of a just system.

  Q63  Dr Whitehead: Do you think the Department might just about scrape into achieving its PSA target on bringing offenders to justice in 2007-08?

  Rod Clark: We are pretty confident.

  Alex Allan: We are ahead of it now. I think one of your questions was whether it is now too easy. We do not think it is yet, but if we can exceed it, we will.

  Q64  Dr Whitehead: Except you might say that from a perception point of view, the challenge of making sure that you do not slip back from a target you have already exceeded this year as far as targets are concerned may not appear particularly stretching from the point of view of the public.

  Alex Allan: From our perspective, as I think we explained in some of the details, a lot of the increase has actually been in cases that do not come before the courts, so there has been a lot of some of the fixed penalty notices, some of those sorts of disposals. Actually, for us, maintaining the volume of business in terms of number of cases through the magistrates' courts, through the crown courts, at the same level is quite a challenge and we are trying to do it with reducing resources and trying to operate more efficiently, so I do not think we feel we can relax now that we have exceeded the target. We feel we are being quite demanding of HMCS in terms of the objectives.

  Q65  Dr Whitehead: Of course, if you look at it another way, and you look at the target in terms of offences recorded by police or even those that have occurred according to the British Crime Survey, the target that you are aiming for in 2007-08 represents only 22% of offences reported to police and 11% of offences recorded by the British Crime Survey, which appears to be a very low rate.

  Alex Allan: That was one of the rationales behind the original programme, which I think was called "Narrowing the justice gap", which exactly reflected the point you have made, that the level of crimes that are brought before the courts relative to the total level of reported crimes is a small-ish percentage, and we want to get that percentage up, and I think we are getting that percentage up because the aggregate figures are falling, we are bringing more offences to justice, so we are narrowing the gap, though I fully accept that there is still a very big gap.

  Q66  Dr Whitehead: Certainly you responded to some thoughts on this matter in your written evidence but do you not think that, perhaps in terms of a longer-term trajectory, expressing a PSA target as a percentage of those figures rather than a flat number would be a better way to proceed?

  Alex Allan: Of course, if the aggregate crime figures continue to fall, that would tend to make it a softer target. I think we see some benefits in having a target expressed in numbers, for two reasons. One is that, as you yourself indicated, we have a long way to go to narrow the justice gap. If total crime falls and the percentage goes up, that is good news, I think. Secondly, it is operationally very much clearer to have a target that actually does numbers of offences brought to justice, because you can actually say to a local criminal justice board "We expect that in your area 75,000 offences should be brought to justice this year" and if you say it is a certain percentage of the total number it is a much less clear target. So although there is some logic in saying it should vary with the amount of crime, I think actually this probably makes more sense.

  Q67  Dr Whitehead: One area where one might question the progress is the question of PSA target 2 on ethnic minority confidence in the criminal justice system. Do you think, for example, the recent anti-terror operations in Forrest Gate and the large number of recent arrests concerning security threats has had an impact on that confidence and hence that target?

  Alex Allan: I think it must be quite likely that is the case and it is something on which I think there is some survey evidence, which I will ask Rod Clark to comment on in a moment. Clearly, this is one of those targets where all sorts of things do influence people's conduct. One of the key things for us is not saying "It's a hopeless task. We can't influence what happens in the media therefore we don't try." We have a lot of programmes very specifically aimed at improving confidence, and they include the work we are doing on community justice programmes, what we are doing on, for example, dedicated drug courts, what we are doing on things like diversity in the judiciary and magistracy to try and make sure that people recognise a more diverse bench of magistrates, for example, looking at enforcement so that people do actually have more confidence that if fines are imposed, they are collected or community penalties are imposed that really mean that somebody has to do something, and equally the work we are doing, as I mentioned earlier, on victims and witnesses. While I do accept that at one level some of this may get swamped by the bigger trends, actually, I think we can do a lot, and it is really important that we do. Rod Clark will be able to say something about the survey evidence.

  Rod Clark: Yes, the research evidence we have on the attitudes of members of minority ethnic groups is that if they do have a lack of confidence that they are going to be treated fairly by the criminal justice system, that is very largely influenced by the impressions they get from the media. Very little of the impact is ascribed to actual first-hand contact with the criminal justice systems themselves. Undoubtedly, the portrayal in the media is an important issue.

  Q68  Dr Whitehead: On target 4, which is increasing the proportion of care cases completed within 40 weeks, your performance simply has deteriorated. What is the Department doing about that and why do you think it has deteriorated?

  Rod Clark: I think there are a number of reasons. By far the biggest cause is simply the growth in the number of cases that are coming through. There is something like a 4.8% increase in the numbers of requests for guardians to CAFCASS, which is suggestive of a continuing upward trend in the number of cases going through. There are also some changes, some legislative changes, which have arguably increased the time it takes to handle some cases. The fact that care and adoption proceedings now tend to run in parallel, so it is the slowest ship in the convoy that then concludes the case, has meant some slowdown. The key things that we are doing to tackle this were brought out in the childcare proceedings review that came out earlier in the year, with activity around the statutory guidance and around a revised judicial protocol for next spring, concentrating on trying to get early activity on these cases brought forward so that in many cases fewer cases need to come through to the courts in the first place but also so that when they do come through they can be dealt with more expeditiously and more simply. There is a lot of work going on in HMCS on performance management and looking at performance variation. There are new courts coming on stream, particularly in London in the Gee Street courts where there are additional facilities being made available and more county court space also being provided. We are also looking at clarity in case management and other performance measures that we can take. However, I think this is an example where the court is, in a sense, the tip of the iceberg of a much bigger system to do with looked after children, and it is a bit like the criminal justice system; it is another area where we really do need to get partners on board working with us to find the most effective way of dealing with people in really very distressing and very difficult circumstances. Harriet Harman chairs a committee that brings together the DfES, the Welsh Assembly, CAFCASS, the judiciary, the various players, in working through the improvement programme that we have got, and that is backed up by family justice councils which also provide a forum a bit like (although not the same as) the local criminal justice boards, where some of these issues can be addressed and tackled. The increase in the numbers, some of which I suspect is due to an increased understanding of the sort of level of harm and risk for children in our communities, is one of the major factors that we are going to have to tackle in the years ahead.

  Alex Allan: Of course, the Committee carried out a study in the family courts area and I think we are due to submit the Government's response before the end of the month on that.[1]

  Q69 Dr Whitehead: Two further brief thoughts, firstly the question of target 5 where at least on part of the target you simply do not have the information available to assess whether you have reached the target or not; why has that taken so long to correct?

  Rod Clark: I think measure 1 under target 5 is a really good example of some of the problems to do with target setting. It is a target which tries to capture the outcome, as it were, for society that we are trying to achieve, which is in the world out there and the problems that people have, how many of those problems do we actually manage to address with effective advice. Because it is the outcome impact on the end customer, it is not something that can simply be read off our own operational systems. The fact that we have answered the phone however many times and given out advice does not necessarily translate to that being advice which addresses people's problems, so we are dependent on having a survey measure to measure it. That means that you are into samples collected over time and it takes time to build up a large enough sample to give you a statistically meaningful measure. We will have our first statistically worthwhile sighted shot on the numbers early in the new year, but even that of course involves statistical error given the fact that it is a sample measure.

  Q70  Dr Whitehead: Bearing in mind our earlier discussion on the role of the Treasury in looking at PSAs in terms of the effective financing of a department, would it not be a good idea at the next Comprehensive Spending Review to ensure that the Department, in taking on board PSAs, has got systems of measurement and baselines in place before the PSAs even come into being?

  Alex Allan: Yes absolutely, and that is one of the things when we are negotiating — there is then, as I think you know, a whole series of technical notes which do explain how they are going to be measured. This target does have a measure attached to it and then the National Audit Office does its periodic investigation and makes some comments on the individual PSAs and how they are organised. However, I agree completely, the more easily targets can be measured then the more meaningful they are.

  Rod Clark: And the more we can underpin them by measures that sit underneath and are easier to quantify and to document.

  Q71  Dr Whitehead: Just a minor thought on PSA target 5, you note in your written evidence that you are trying to increase opportunities for people who have got lower value disputes to settle earlier the problems that they have and I think you mentioned the in-house Small Claims Mediation Service which is being piloted in Manchester. Do you have any further information or thoughts about that service? Is there a timetable or are there proposals for rolling it out further across the country?

  Alex Allan: Indeed. The service in Manchester has proved very successful. If anything, one of the problems has been that the number of claims that are put through to the mediator has actually been relatively limited and his capacity is bigger than that, and so we are expanding the area that he will take cases from. The figures are extremely encouraging because during the pilot, 86% of the claims that were referred to it were settled on the day and with very high satisfaction levels. What is interesting also is that none of them required any subsequent follow-up enforcement action, whereas typically we have a number that even if they are settled still require action, so that was very encouraging. We are looking at rolling it out to another nine areas. We tried a number of different pilots, as you know. This was much the most successful and the one that we feel rolling it out will both provide a better service and indeed reduce demand on the county courts.

  Q72  Dr Whitehead: Are the areas known?

  Alex Allan: We are trying to have a geographical spread and we are trying to get as well as the wider Manchester one, two in the North East, two in the South East, one in London, two in the South West, one in the Midlands, and one more not yet identified.

  Q73  Dr Whitehead: Central south of the country I would have thought would be very appropriate. I am sorry, that is an aside.

  Alex Allan: I am not sure exactly but that is that is what I was told—

  Chairman: Two in the North East sounds promising! Mrs James?

  Q74  Mrs James: I would like to take you back to the Comprehensive Spending Review; you have mentioned it once or twice. Can you tell us what point you are at in your negotiations with the Treasury as part of the continuing review?

  Alex Allan: We are in the middle of negotiations and perhaps I could ask Barbara Moorhouse, who is in the thick of those negotiations, to explain a little bit about where we are in the process.

  Barbara Moorhouse: It has a "back to the future" feel in terms of the CSR. Where we are at the moment is the Treasury obviously sets out precisely how they want departments to comply with their requirements for going into the Comprehensive Spending Review. They are requiring all departments to write to them at this current stage and there is a lot of preparatory work which I will not bore you with, essentially asking for information about our value for money reviews, our management strategy, in other words how we are looking after our estates, and what our proposals are around things like revenue and strategic objectives, so they are asking us to set out, as one would expect, a comprehensive view of where the Department wants to go and the amounts of money that it will cost to carry out our various core operations. We are just in the process of finalising our response to that timetable. There will be a meeting relatively soon over the next few weeks between the Chief Secretary of the Treasury and our Secretary of State to discuss the contents of that letter. Thereafter we expect to be continuing to work with the Treasury on the current timetable in order to refine work with officials within the Treasury for them to understand the detailed financial information that we have put together. Then all of that culminates in us putting a final proposition to the Treasury in January of next year.

  Q75  Mrs James: So have you any other key priorities? You talked about the estates, the value for money; anything within your overall expansion or perhaps?

  Barbara Moorhouse: From our point of view there are two absolutely overriding aspects. From a financial point of view clearly there are a number of strategic objectives and what is critical for us is that those can be appropriately funded. We all understand the context of public spending at the current time and we cannot be blind to that, however much we might wish to be so. The key issues for us are to make sure that we have taken a careful and thoughtful approach to the objectives that the Department has in terms of its ministerial and political agenda and the key priorities for us, the operational costs that we need to meet for running things like the courts. Legal aid is clearly a critical cost for us and the Carter proposals and the costing of those have been a key building block for our Comprehensive Spending Review. So drawing all of those priorities together, the key issues for us are to make sure that the Treasury understands the basis of those figures and the information and the money that we need to run the Department. Over on top of that if there is one absolutely central thing for the Department in the Comprehensive Spending Review, it is to ensure that we capitalise on work that has already been done so that we can get some modernisation funding into the Department. Clearly the Department has a certain legacy from the time that it was the Lord Chancellor's Department. We have carried out two very significant mergers of a number of organisations from the Courts Service, specifically the magistrates and then in the tribunals. What is critical to us now is that we can capitalise on a lot of the change work that is now going on and get the required investment in people, systems, pay and grading, the estates, and a number of other aspects of change in order for us to develop the efficient operation of the courts, the tribunals, and indeed every other part of our business to support the delivery of both our core constitutional and indeed our practical day-to-day support to customers.

  Q76  Mrs James: Are you confident that you will get the level of support that you require?

  Barbara Moorhouse: I do not think any Director General of Finance will be saying that they can be confident in their Treasury negotiations. We have put a great deal of thought and care into the proposition that we will put to the Treasury. We have tried to make sure that we are responding constructively to their request for us to demonstrate value for money, and to make sure that our spending plans are well-founded, and to ensure that we are being reasonably responsive to the realities of the public spending situation, whilst not short changing the important operational duties that we have in terms of running the courts and providing legal aid and supporting a number of vulnerable constituencies. We believe that we are broadly in the process of setting that picture right. We are working closely with the Treasury but, no, I think confidence might be taking it too far!

  Alex Allan: A key plank was of course the Carter review of legal aid which sets out a programme going forward through the Comprehensive Spending Review years and does map out a process for considerable improvements in efficiency, in particular the efficiency with which the Legal Services Commission operates and providing the right sorts of processes that support what we are trying to do more generally, particularly in the criminal justice side.

  Q77  Mrs James: You will soon be setting new PSA targets as part of the CSR. What changes do you want to see from your current PSAs?

  Alex Allan: It is still fairly early in that process because, by and large, the way the Treasury operates—and Barbara will come in and correct me on this if I have got this wrong—is that the first discussion is all about what savings can you make and how can you improve your efficiency and then the processes of examining what the right PSA regime is, continuing in parallel but perhaps not quite as advanced as that. We are running a number of workshops within the Department with the Treasury and with other stakeholders, looking at what the right sorts of targets might be and looking indeed at the areas that Dr Whitehead pointed out where we do not have PSA targets at the moment, as to whether there are PSA targets that we should be proposing and looking for in those areas as well. I do not know if Rod Clark wants to say something about that exercise?

  Rod Clark: We have also been working with the Office for Criminal Justice Reform, which has been leading the work really to look at the joint PSAs around the criminal justice system. I think the impression that I am getting about where Treasury thinking is going is that they do not want to change the idea that this is a set of measures for the Government as a whole to set out some key priorities. They do not want to turn PSAs into individual performance measures department-by-department, although they will be very keen to understand exactly the underpinnings in terms of the performance measures that then set about delivering those PSAs. So what we need to do is to make sure that we understand the relationship between the money, the operational performance measures, and the delivery of the outcomes in areas which may be cross government (like the criminal justice targets) early enough to inform the setting of those targets.

  Q78  Mrs James: I assume that you will be providing some sort of draft proposals for negotiations?

  Alex Allan: It is a continuing, iterative process whereby ideas are put forward, then gradually refined, so I do not think there is a formal stage where we submit draft PSA targets in that sense but, yes, there is lots of debate.

  Q79  Mrs James: Do you think you would allow the Committee to see those targets in draft form and allow us time to comment on them before they are finalised?

  Alex Allan: As I say, I do not think there is necessarily a stage where we have a draft set of PSA targets, but I am very happy that we should both engage with the Committee and certainly get your views on what sorts of targets would be appropriate. I think that is entirely appropriate. That is part of the process.

  Chairman: Maybe at a stage which seems to you to be appropriate you could drop us a note saying how things are developing and we might have some comments to make?

1   Note by witness: Subsequently, a letter was sent to the Chairman, Rt Hon Alan Beith, from the Minister of State, Rt Hon Harriet Harman MP, 23 October, to indicate that the publication of this response would need to be delayed until mid-November. Back

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