Work of the Committee in 2007-08 - Justice Committee Contents


1  Introduction


Overview

1. This report is a review of the work of the Justice Committee during 2007-08. The Committee's main areas of work are set out in general terms in this introduction, identifying specific areas of interest; in the second section the Committee's activity is described in relation to the core tasks for departmental committees specified by the Liaison Committee; and the annexes include this information in tabular form as well as the details of all the Committee's activity during the session.

Remit

2. The Committee is responsible for the scrutiny of the expenditure, administration and policy of the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) as well as the administration and expenditure of the Attorney General's Office, the Treasury Solicitor's Department, the Crown Prosecution Service and Serious Fraud Office. The MoJ was created on 9 May 2007.[1] The Ministry of Justice comprises the former Department for Constitutional Affairs and responsibilities for prisons, probation and sentencing[2] which were formerly within the remit of the Home Office. The Department describes its responsibilities as falling into four main areas:

  • democracy, constitution and the rule of law

Including constitutional reform, national and local elections, guidance on human rights and on freedom of information issues, development of a Supreme Court and EU justice issues

  • access to justice

Including the administration of the courts, tribunals, mediation, legal aid provision and the regulation of legal services

  • national offender management service

Comprising prisons and probation services and partnerships for reducing re-offending and youth justice (jointly with DCSF)

  • criminal justice

Implementation of strategy for an efficient and effective criminal justice system (jointly with the Home Office and the Attorney General's Office supported by the trilateral Office for Criminal Justice Reform) [3]

Overall

3. The Justice Committee was, at the time of writing, just over a year old with 2007-08 the first full session of operation under its new remit. The Committee has focused on establishing itself as an influential voice in public discourse on matters within its responsibilities, both new and old.

4. In 2007-08, reports were produced both in response to significant political priorities (the protection of private data held by central government, the Counter Terrorism and draft Constitutional Renewal bills), trenchant and enduring issues (sentencing policy in the light of a burgeoning prison population) and other matters such as public appointments within the responsibility of the department. We held our first pre-appointment hearing, in relation to the Chair of the Office for Legal Complaints, and learned lessons that we applied to the second (which took place in the current session) one of which was the value of a valedictory hearing from the incumbent, where possible, in advance of taking evidence from their potential successor. We also took evidence from the out-going Lord Chief Justice based on the first annual review of the administration of justice in the courts published by the Lord Chief Justice.[4]

5. A number of informal meetings were also held between chairman, other members and a wide range of interlocutors on both inquiry-related matters and other topics within the Committee's remit. One example was a meeting with a delegation from the Isle of Man parliament (Tynwald) on a range of matters arising from the financial crisis in Iceland and ramifications for the financial sector of the Isle of Man and the Ministry of Justice's overall responsibility for representing the interests of the Crown dependencies within government.

6. On-going work on the impact and implications of devolution and examining the allocation of public expenditure across the criminal justice system ('justice reinvestment') predominantly occupied the formal proceedings of the Committee during this session. In addition time has been devoted to preparing for further inquiries into the role of the prison officer, the performance of the Crown Prosecution Service and on other topics not announced at the time of writing.[5]

7. Judging from feedback in the media, and from other commentators, this initial approach of the Committee has been successful. For example, Justice of the Peace publication described the Committee as "a credit to the political process" with approval of the Committee's calm yet tenacious approach to challenging the government with fair criticism when necessary. [6]

Working practices

OTHER COMMITTEES

8. The Committee has continued to liaise with other committees, such as Home Affairs Committee, Public Administration Committee and the Joint Committee on Human Rights that have legitimate interests in areas falling within our remit. The Committee has also maintained liaison with other committees where its work overlaps with their interests. For example, the Chairman and staff have maintained close links with the Northern Ireland Affairs, Welsh Affairs and Scottish Affairs Committees in relation to the on-going inquiry into devolution.

RELATIONS WITH THE DEPARTMENT

9. Relations with the Department continue to be good. There is regular liaison between departmental staff and the staff of the Committee and the department's responsiveness to requests, both formal and informal, for information has been satisfactory. Changes in departmental responsibilities have neither complicated nor diluted the relationship. This is not, however, a comment on the quality of the substantive responses to our reports received from the Department which have been variable. For example, the Government's reply to our "Towards effective sentencing" report did not, in our view, reflect engagement with our findings, nor any advance in this important debate, but was rather defensive and negative in tone and substance. On the other hand, the overall response to our findings on the coroners system (in reply to our report on the Counter Terrorism Bill and earlier work on the 2006 draft Coroners Bill) has been much more substantive and open to the thrust of many of our recommendations.[7]

WITNESS FEEDBACK

10. Although there is no formal requirement to seek feedback from witnesses appearing before the Committee, the staff continue to receive positive responses from witnesses about the administrative arrangements for oral evidence sessions and the opportunities such sessions provide for the exchange of information and expression of opinion. Recently, in the case of witnesses invited to share their expertise (rather than to account for their stewardship of resources or development of policy), the Committee has invited a rather lengthier—seminar-style—opening statement covering key points to which members have responded with questions. This has been particularly well-received by witnesses and members alike.

E-CONSULTATION

11. We augmented formal evidence gathering in our current 'justice reinvestment' inquiry by means of an online consultation. The exercise ran for 6 weeks and registered users included criminal justice professionals, ex-offenders, organisations in the justice public policy community and members of the public. The consultation received 6,796 hits and about 130 postings. The Committee responded to inputs via two members designated as 'rapporteurs' for the process. Of particular interest were the views of former prisoners which it is hard to envisage attracting in another way.[8] As an aside, the emphasis in these postings on the positive influence of individual prison officers led to our decision to inquire into the role of the prison officer in the reduction of re-offending.

OUTSIDE WESTMINSTER

12. We have conducted evidence sessions—in relation to devolution—outside Westminster, in Edinburgh, Newcastle and Cardiff. In Cardiff, arrangements were successfully put in place for the session to be conducted bilingually in Welsh and English.[9]

PETITIONS

13. We have made it our practice to consider public petitions made to the House and referred to the Committee. We have taken action by drawing the attention of petitioners to relevant work undertaken by the Committee.



1   The consideration of individual cases and appointments in relation to the work of the courts, tribunals, the Attorney General's Office, the Treasury Solicitor's Department, the Crown Prosecution Service and Serious Fraud Office, as well as advice given within government by Law Officers, are explicitly outwith the Committee's terms of reference. S.O. 152 (2) 12 (table). Back

2   See the Sixth Report of Session 2006-07, The creation of the Ministry of Justice, HC 466 Back

3   See the Department's Annual Report for 2007-08, Cm 7397 Back

4   See www.parliament.uk/parliamentary_committees/justice/reports_publications.cfm Back

5   Ibid Back

6   Justice of the Peace, 22 November 2008, Volume 172, pages 767-770, "Let's hear it for the Justice Committee", Glenna Robson, JP Back

7   See Ministry of Justice, Cm 7476 October 2008 and Justice Committee, Second Report, 2007-08, The Coroners and Justice Bill, HC 185, paras 1-17 Back

8   See http://forums.parliament.uk/prisoncosts Back

9   See evidence taken before the Committee in the National Assembly for Wales, Cardiff, on 8 May 2008 Back


 
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Prepared 5 March 2009