The justice system is under unprecedented pressure. The Ministry of Justice (the Ministry) is facing significant risks across courts and tribunals, prisons and probation services as it attempts to recover from the pandemic and make progress with ambitious change programmes. The court reform programme is in its final phases but still not in the clear; a major programme of building new prisons is underway but threatened by an eye-watering maintenance backlog of around £1 billion; and HM Prisons and Probation Service (HMPPS) an executive agency of the Ministry, is in the process of reunifying the probation service. These are daunting challenges, made 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 response to the pandemic has exacerbated existing pressures on the justice system. The backlog in the court system means unacceptably long waiting times for people to access justice. We remain unconvinced that the Ministry and HM Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS) have robust plans in place to manage the challenges in the court system, and for reducing the huge backlogs that have built up.
We are also concerned that restrictive regimes in prisons during the pandemic have worsened prisoner wellbeing and mental health, and social distancing has made the effective provision of rehabilitation and probation services much more challenging. While we are encouraged by HMPPS’s plans for managing the risks in the prison system and probation services, the maintenance backlog poses a real threat to achieving a safe and secure prison estate.
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, its long-term funding position remains uncertain and hampers its ability to make credible plans to address the risks it faces.