Work of the Committee in 2008-09 - Justice Committee Contents

1  Introduction

This report

1. This is a review of our work during parliamentary session 2008-09 (3 December 2008 to 12 November 2009). The introduction sets out our main areas of work in general terms, highlighting specific areas of interest. In the second section, our work is described in more detail in relation to the core tasks for departmental committees specified by the Liaison Committee (and the annexes include this information presented in tabular form as well as the details of all our activity and outputs during the session).


2. We are responsible for the scrutiny of the expenditure, administration and policy of the Ministry of Justice[1] 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.[2]

3. The Ministry of Justice describes its responsibilities as falling into four main areas, each with a departmental strategic objective, associated targets and key priorities:

  • Democracy, rights and responsibilities

Aiming at: constitutional modernisation, strengthened democracy and the creation of conditions for increased citizen engagement.

  • Fair and simple routes to civil and family justice

Aiming at: increased efficiency and effectiveness of the civil, administrative and family justice systems; provision of early advice and support to enable disputes to be resolved out of court or tribunal wherever possible; and an accessible justice system that provides support where it is needed.

  • Protecting the public and reducing re-offending

Aiming at: the protection of the public; the reduction of re-offending; increased efficiency and effectiveness of service delivery; and work to counter the risks posed by violent extremist offenders.

  • A more effective, transparent and responsive criminal justice system for victims and the public

Aiming at: increased efficiency and effectiveness of the criminal justice system; increased transparency of the criminal justice system so that it inspires confidence in local communities; and a more responsive criminal justice system that has the needs of victims and witnesses at its heart.[3]


4. Our committee was, at the time of writing, just over two years old, with 2008-09 the second full session of its operation. We have continued to consolidate our position as an influential participant in public discourse on matters within our remit and the natural focal point for channelling concerns about the policies and performance of the Ministry of Justice and the authorities, agencies and services within its ambit. In doing so, we have needed to be flexible in our response. On legal aid and parliamentary standards, for instance, the window for effective intervention in the Government's timetable was narrow and action at high speed was required. With regard to devolution and "justice reinvestment", at the other end of the scale, it was important to gather evidence on a wide range of issues and we took the time to undertake deeper analysis.

5. In 2008-09, we published reports or evidence under the following broad imperatives:

  • in response to significant political priorities: on the implications of the Icelandic banking crisis for the Crown Dependencies and the responsibilities of the Ministry of Justice for representing their interests; on the Coroners and Justice Bill, drawing together strands of previous work on the various policy areas affected by this portmanteau bill;[4] and on constitutional reform and renewal with two reports—the first on the implications of the Parliamentary Standards Bill and a second dealing with wider issues of constitutional reform (in anticipation of further legislation and the conclusions of the Committee on Reform of the House of Commons);[5]
  • on longer-term issues: the effects of devolution a decade after the establishment of devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland; the on-going reform of legal aid, in particular controversial proposals for curbing family legal aid expenditure; the role and performance of the Crown Prosecution Service; and the role of prison officers—and prison itself—and the actual and potential contribution of such officers to the reduction of re-offending via the reform and rehabilitation of offenders;
  • under our remit to monitor the activity and performance of authorities and agencies within the Ministry of Justice's aegis: including the Information Commissioner, the Legal Services Board, the Office for Criminal Justice Reform and the Criminal Cases Review Commission; and
  • in response to the production of draft sentencing guidelines:[6] (a) reports on principles for courts in sentencing youths and on the overall role of parliamentary scrutiny in the production of such guidelines; and (b) evidence-taking on the proposed sentencing guideline for fraud (statutory offences).

6. In addition to the work which has resulted in publications in 2008-09, we have also conducted a busy programme of evidence-taking related to on-going inquiries. First, we have held a large number of hearings in our fundamental re-examination of how resources within, and alongside, the criminal justice system might be redistributed in order to provide better value for money as well as improve crime reduction—"justice reinvestment".[7] Secondly, we have commenced an inquiry into justice issues in Europe and the impact of the provisions of the Lisbon Treaty on what was previously the inter-governmental justice and home affairs 'third pillar'. We also took oral evidence from the senior management team of the Ministry of Justice on issues raised by the Ministry's departmental annual report.

7. A number of informal meetings were also held between the Chairman, and other Committee members, and a range of interlocutors on both inquiry-related matters and other topics within our remit at Westminster and elsewhere. For example, we received an informal briefing from Cabinet Office officials on the nuts and bolts of devolution; and we held meetings with parliamentarians from Kenya, the Isle of Man and the Northern Ireland Assembly to discuss a wide variety of issues.

8. Away from Westminster, we held formal evidence sessions in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Newcastle as part of our devolution inquiry. Elsewhere in the United Kingdom, we have conducted information-gathering visits to:

  • Edinburgh, in the course of our inquiry into justice reinvestment;
  • HM Prisons Elmley, Standford Hill and Swaleside, within the Sheppey Cluster as part of our inquiry into the role of the prison officer;
  • Durham Business School at Durham University for a Freedom of Information Workshop;[8] and
  • the United Kingdom Supreme Court, London.

9. Outside the UK the Chairman visited:

  • Stockholm, for a conference of chairpersons of parliamentary committees on justice and home affairs issues;[9] and
  • Brussels, for a joint parliamentary meeting on "Building a Citizen's Europe".[10]

Working practices


10. The Committee has continued to liaise with other committees where comity of interest exists; for instance with the Welsh, and Scottish, Affairs Committees on devolution, with the Home Affairs Committee on criminal justice issues, with the Joint Committee on Human Rights on a range of issues such as those raised by the Coroners and Justice Bill and the Parliamentary Standards Bill and with the Communities and Local Government Committee on electoral administration.

The departments

11. There is regular liaison between Ministry of Justice staff and the staff of the Committee, and the department's responsiveness to requests, both formal and informal, for information and assistance has been satisfactory. Within an already restricted timetable, we particularly welcomed the deferring of certain clauses of the Parliamentary Standards Bill in Committee of the Whole House which ensured the key provisions affecting privilege were taken on the second day by which time we had produced our report on the relevant implications of the bill.[11]

12. However, we wish to record our dissatisfaction with the timeliness of replies to our reports from the Attorney General's Office. We reported on certain provisions within the draft Constitutional Renewal Bill in June 2008[12] but did not receive a substantive response until July 2009, more than 12 months later.[13] We recognise that some Government responses to select committee reports are sensibly deferred if they relate to major initiatives or proposals which are being finalised within a reasonable timeframe.[14] However, in this instance we see no case for delaying a substantive response for over a year.

13. As an isolated incident this might not have drawn comment but our concerns have been exacerbated by another delay; this time in the Attorney General's response to our report on the work of the Crown Prosecution Service, published in August 2009,[15] to which a reply was not received until 6 January 2010.[16] Moreover, in the intervening period the Attorney General asked us to hold a pre-appointment hearing for a new HM Chief Inspector of the CPS, a task we are prevented from undertaking as effectively as we would wish without the Government's response to our report in this area.[17] The absence of a Government response also reduces the value of debate on a report in the Chamber or Westminster Hall and makes it more difficult to secure time on the floor of the House to follow-up these important issues. The Attorney General should bear in mind that, by long-standing convention, government departments have agreed that replies to select committee reports should be made within two months of publication.[18] The performance of the Attorney General's Office in replying to our reports has been poor and has hindered our work.


14. We augmented formal evidence gathering in our inquiry into the case for "justice reinvestment" by means of an online consultation and the results of that exercise will be published with our report.[19] Partly, as a result of an emphasis in contributions to this e-consultation on the positive influence of individual prison officers, we decided to inquire into the role of the prison officer in the rehabilitation of offenders and the potential for related reductions in re-offending. Once again, we decided to conduct an e-consultation to support this inquiry.

15. In addition to the normal call for evidence, we publicised our e-consultation on the role of the prison officer by writing to all prisons in England and Wales and contacting prison independent monitoring boards via their national council. A link to the e-consultation was also placed on the Prison Service website and we were grateful for the cooperation of the Service. In order to engage current prisoners, who do not have access to the internet, and other potential respondents with prison experience who may be harder to reach, the inquiry was written up in the prison community's newspaper, Inside Time, and we contacted a wide range of organisations who represent, or assist, current and former prisoners and their families.

16. As a result of these efforts we were able to make contact with, and take formal oral evidence from, a number of former offenders which shed valuable light on the potential for reform and rehabilitation inside prison and after release.

17. The Government announced its intention to abandon its plans to build three 2,500-place 'Titan' prisons shortly before the end of the e-consultation on the role of the prison officer. As a result, we extended the period of consultation adding three new questions on the implications of this announcement. By the time the e-consultation website was closed, it had received nearly 18,000 hits and had 357 registered users.[20]

1   The Ministry of Justice was created on 9 May 2007 and comprises the former Department for Constitutional Affairs, together with responsibilities for prisons, probation and sentencing which were formerly within the remit of the Home Office. See Justice Committee, Sixth Report, 2006-07, The creation of the Ministry of Justice, HC 466. Back

2   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

3   See the Ministry of Justice's Departmental Annual Report for 2008-09, Cm 7600 Back

4   The staff of the Justice Committee also assisted in the production of briefing for the evidence-taking phase of the relevant public bill committee.  Back

5   See Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill (introduction and second reading, 19 November 2009 and carried over to 2009-10 session) and House of Commons Reform Committee, First Report, 2008-09, Rebuilding the House,
HC 1117. 

6   This is a responsibility inherited from the Home Affairs Committee following the establishment of the Ministry of Justice. Under Section 120 (6) of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009, the Justice Committee is now a statutory consultee in the sentencing guidelines process. Back

7   See Justice Committee, First Report, 2009-10, Cutting crime: the case for justice reinvestment, HC 94-I Back

8   Travel in a representative capacity Back

9   Ibid. Back

10   Travel in a representative capacity Back

11   See Justice Committee, Seventh Report, 2008-09, Constitutional reform and renewal: Parliamentary Standards Bill, HC 791 Back

12   Justice Committee, Fourth Report, 2007-08, Draft Constitutional Renewal Bill (provisions relating to the Attorney General), HC 698 Back

13   See The Government's response to the Justice Committee Report on the Draft Constitutional Renewal Bill (provisions relating to the Attorney General) July 2009, Cm 7689 Back

14   See, for example, Justice Committee, First Special Report, 2009-10, Family legal aid reform: further Government response to the Committee's Eighth Report of Session 2008-09, HC 161 Back

15   Justice Committee, Ninth Report, 2008-09, Crown Prosecution Service: gatekeeper of the criminal justice system,
HC 186 

16   See Justice Committee, Second Special Report, 2009-10, Crown Prosecution Service: etc.: Government response to the Committee's Ninth Report of Session 2008-09, HC 123 Back

17   See Justice Committee: HC 698 (2007-08); HC 186 (2008-09), Ev 64; and Cm 7689, p 1 Back

18   The law, privileges, proceedings and usage of Parliament ('Erskine May'), 23rd edition, McKay (ed.), p 778. Back

19   Justice Committee, First Report, 2009-10, Cutting crime: the case for justice reinvestment, HC 94-I, Annex 2 Back

20   See Justice Committee, Twelfth Report, 2008-09, Role of the prison officer, HC 361


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Prepared 22 January 2010