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


2  Inquiries and core tasks

Activity

14. The Justice Committee published the following substantive reports in 2007-08:

The Committee also published a number of Government replies to its reports.

15. In addition the Committee launched inquiries into, and/or took evidence on, the following subjects:

  • devolution: a decade on (10 sessions of evidence-taking)
  • the allocation of resources across the criminal justice system (justice reinvestment) (10 sessions)
  • sentencing policy and guidelines (4 sessions)
  • the performance of the Ministry of Justice (2 sessions)
  • the administration of justice (one session), and
  • the work of the Electoral Commission (one session)

For a full record of the Committee's activity see the Sessional report extract annexed to this report.

Performance against core tasks

16. In 2002 the Liaison Committee established a list of core tasks to guide the work of departmentally-related select committees and we give examples below of how our work in 2007-08 reflected these objectives. A more comprehensive summary in tabular form is annexed to this report.

Examination of Government and European Commission policy proposals (objective A)

CORE TASK 1: SCRUTINY OF POLICY PROPOSALS FROM THE GOVERNMENT AND THE EUROPEAN COMMISSION.

17. In March 2008, we reported on the provisions in the Counter Terrorism Bill of 2007-08 which would have enabled the Secretary of State to certify that a coroner's inquest be held without a jury and to appoint a particular, security cleared, coroner in inquest which are expected to involve the consideration of material that, in the Minister's opinion, should not be made public. Our predecessor committee had examined a draft Coroners Bill in 2006 and we maintained a close interest in the development of proposals to reform the coroners system. Therefore, we were surprised and dismayed to see this controversial innovation proposed, without prior public consultation or notice of any kind, without assessment of their impact on human rights and separate to the Government's overall process of reform of the coroners system. We recommended that the provisions be withdrawn pending a final Coroners Bill. The Government subsequently did so (bringing revised proposals back in 2008-09 in the Coroners and Justice Bill).[10]

18. We have maintained a watching brief on justice issues at a European level. The Chairman has represented the Committee at meetings of chairmen of justice and home affairs (JHA) committees of national parliaments of EU member states. The Committee is looking at how best to follow up on scrutiny of the EU's Hague Programme for JHA issues conducted previously by the Home Affairs Committee in 2007.[11]

CORE TASK 2: SCRUTINY OF EMERGING POLICY, OR WHERE EXISTING POLICY IS DEFICIENT

19. By far the most substantial piece of work in 2007-08 was our taking forward and completing an inquiry in an area of policy—sentencing policy and the effective use of custody and community sentences—inherited from the Home Affairs Committee[12] following the creation of the Ministry of Justice.

20. "Towards Effective Sentencing"[13] was a response to the twin issues of increasing pressure on the prison system—and likely Government plans to respond to the problem by building more prison places—and the apparent failure of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 to achieve its objectives of providing overall structure and clarity to sentencing, by reserving prison for the most dangerous offenders and by making effective provision to deal with other offenders through community sentences. In addition to the evidence already taken by the Home Affairs Committee in the previous session, we heard from a wide range of witnesses from throughout the criminal justice system, including the Lord Chief Justice, the chief inspectors of both the prison and the probation service as well as Ministers on three occasions.

21. We found the new 'flagship' indeterminate sentence of Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPP) to be not well-targeted at the most dangerous offenders and that its implications for prison capacity had not been foreseen nor accompanied by the level of custodial resources required to make them work. The desired degree of shift to community penalties where public safety was not at issue had not occurred. Again, failures to consider practicalities and resource needs prevented the effective use and implementation of such community options. Public confidence in the criminal justice system was not being fostered by the level of public debate including in the media. We criticised Lord Carter's review of the use of custody and, for something which has prompted commitment of billions of pounds of public spending, it seemed to have a weak evidence base. We concluded that the Government had not learnt vital lessons from past experience and needed to adopt a strategic approach to sentencing and address the complex and incomplete framework created by recent legislation including the 2003 Act.

CORE TASK 3: SCRUTINY OF DRAFT BILLS

22. In 2007-08 the Committee examined the provisions contained in the draft Constitutional Renewal Bill which related to the role of the Attorney General. The Constitutional Affairs Committee, our predecessor, had considered the constitutional role of the Attorney General in 2007, concluding that there "inherent tensions in combining ministerial and political functions on the one hand, and the provision of independent legal advice and superintendence of the prosecution services, on the other hand, within one office."[14] Our follow-up inquiry concluded that the draft bill made no substantial change to that situation and, in not doing so, failed to achieve the purposes of constitutional reform articulated by the Prime Minister—giving greater power to Parliament and improving transparency of the executive.

23. In 2006, as referred to above, the Constitutional Affairs Committee examined a draft Coroners Bill and reported a number of serious criticisms, including its failure to address the issue of death certification and solve the 'Shipman' problem. The draft bill was subsequently withdrawn and a draft "Coroners and Death Certification Bill" was promised. During 2007-08 we have maintained a watching brief on the various consultation processes being run by the Ministry of Justice and the Department for Health to resolve these issues. The conclusion has been provisions in the Coroners and Justice Bill (presented on 14 January 2009) to reform arrangements governing both coroners and death certification. Further work undertaken on this Bill falls in Session 2008-09 and we will review it in an equivalent exercise next year, 2010.

CORE TASK 4: SCRUTINY OF POLICY DOCUMENTS OR OTHER DECISIONS

24. Chief amongst policy documents examined by the Committee is our regulation consideration of draft sentencing guidelines as a consultee in the process for which the Sentencing Advisory Panel and the Sentencing Guidelines Council are responsible. In 2007-08 we published evidence taken on the guidelines for (a) Theft and Burglary (Non-Dwelling) and (b) Causing Death by Driving. In each case we subsequently wrote to the Sentencing Guidelines Council with a view based on that evidence. We also took evidence on the Magistrate's Court Sentencing Guidelines. In addition to work on the guidelines themselves, we took evidence from a range of academic and judicial witnesses on the process of developing sentencing guidelines, their application and Lord Carter's proposal for a sentencing commission that would link sentences more closely to the availability of correctional resources.[15]

Examination of departmental expenditure and administration (objectives B and C)

CORE TASKS 5, 6 AND 7: SCRUTINY OF THE DEPARTMENT'S EXPENDITURE PLANS, PUBLIC SERVICE AGREEMENTS AND ASSOCIATED TARGETS AND THOSE OF ITS EXECUTIVE AGENCIES, NDPBS, REGULATORS AND OTHER ASSOCIATED PUBLIC BODIES

25. In October 2008, we examined the department on its work overall, including reference to performance against objectives and targets and the work of its associated public bodies, in hearings with the Permanent Secretary and officials on the departmental annual report and with the Secretary of State for Justice.

26. During the Session we took evidence from a range of the Ministry of Justice's associated public bodies as part of our inquiries. In addition, we held a hearing specifically on the work of the Electoral Commission in March 2008.

CORE TASK 8: SCRUTINY OF MAJOR APPOINTMENTS MADE BY THE DEPARTMENT

27. We held our first pre-appointment hearing in October 2008 when we took evidence from Elizabeth France, the Legal Service Board's preferred candidate for the role of Chair of the Office of Legal Complaints (a new role created by the Legal Services Act 2007). We subsequently issued a report affirming her suitability for the role

28. In a different exercise, we examined the way in which High Sheriffs and Lord Lieutenants are appointed. We published a report in September 2008 which recommended that the approach in both cases be reformed to reflect modern practice and the Nolan principles for public appointments as well as to promote diversity. We have since then submitted our conclusions for consideration by the Commissioner of Public Appointments and by the Committee on Standards in Public Life as part of the latter's local leadership and public trust inquiry.

CORE TASK 9: SCRUTINY OF THE IMPLEMENTATION OF LEGISLATION AND MAJOR POLICY INITIATIVES

29. A large part of the Committee's work relates to the implementation of legislation and major Government policy initiatives, to which we have already referred above.

30. In the light of new and specific arrangements for parliamentary post-legislative scrutiny, the Secretary of State for Justice wrote to the Committee in November 2008 on the timing of such scrutiny in relation to the three Acts that received Royal Assent in 2005 (i.e. falling within the 3 to 5 year time frame in the new system). The Committee concurred that in respect of the Constitutional Reform Act 2005, the Inquiries Act 2005 and the Mental Capacity Act 2005 there were good reasons for deferring formal post-legislative scrutiny. [16]

Assisting the House in debate and decision (objective D)

CORE TASK 10: PRODUCTION OF REPORTS FOR DEBATE

31. We remain seized of our responsibility to ensure that the work of the Committee feeds into wider task of the House in holding the Government to account, including via debates on the floor of the House. In Session 2007-08 the following opportunities arose for the work of the Committee to be specifically 'tagged' as relevant to debate on the floor of the House or in Westminster Hall:

a)  Second Reading of the Counter Terrorism Bill on 1 April 2008 (Counter Terrorism Bill, Third Report of 2007-08, HC 405); and

b)  Second Reading of the Political Parties and Elections Bill on 20 October 2008 (Party Funding, First Report of 2006-07, HC 163).


10   See Justice Committee, Second Report, 2007-08, The Coroners and Justice Bill, HC 185, paras 1-17 Back

11   Home Affairs Committee, Third Report, 2006-07, Justice and Home Affairs Issues at European Union Level, HC 76 Back

12   Home Affairs Committee, Towards effective sentencing: oral and written evidence taken in 2006-07, HC 467 Back

13   Justice Committee, Fifth Report, Session 2007-08, Towards effective sentencing, HC 184 Back

14   Constitutional Affairs Committee, Fifth Report, session 2006-07, Constitutional role of the Attorney General, HC 306 Back

15   See HC 649, 407 and 279 (specific guidelines) and HC 279 and 1095 (process), Session 2007-08 Back

16   Op. cit., 11 November 2008. Constitutional Reform Act 2005, not fully implemented particularly in respect of the Supreme Court; Inquiries Act 2005, no inquiries yet; and the Mental Capacity Act 2005, conclusion of post-implementation review expected in 2010. Back


 
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