1.We are concerned that the Ministry faces significant risks across the full range of its services, without a clear sense of prioritisation. The pandemic has exacerbated the pressure on the justice system and the systemic issues that we have pointed to in the past. Aside from its work to support the justice system to recover from the pandemic, the Ministry has a complex portfolio of 15 projects listed in the Government’s Major Projects Portfolio. Many of these projects are at critical stages, including court reform, building new prisons and introducing a new model for delivering probation services. The Ministry was unable to tell us how it planned to prioritise its efforts as it manages significant change in every part of the system alongside an expected increase in demand as government implements its plans for 20,000 new police officers and sentencing reforms start taking effect. The Ministry and its agencies welcome the significant uplift in the 2020 Spending Review, which included £4 billion for new prison places and £119 million to support the justice system’s recovery from the pandemic, but recognise that this is against a backdrop of deep funding cuts over many years.
Recommendation: In the absence of clear sense of its priorities, the Ministry should set out what contingencies it has if it encounters difficulties delivering its change programmes across courts, prisons and probation services.
2.The pandemic has significantly impacted the wellbeing and life chances of prisoners, making it critical that the Ministry and HMPPS accelerate their work to improve the mental health of prisoners. The need for restrictive regimes to maintain social distancing in prisons during the pandemic has exacerbated the existing mental health challenges that prisoners face. In 2019–20, the incidents of self-harm in prisons remained high, particularly in the female prisoner population. We welcome HMPPS’ work to specifically address the issues facing female prisoners, including maintaining family contact and one-to-one counselling support. It is vital that HMPPS continues to learn lessons from how it manages the impact of the pandemic on prisoner wellbeing and that it sustains this work in the long term. We are encouraged by HMPPS’s commitment to improve its work with others, including the Samaritans and CLINKS.
Recommendation: In its Treasury Minute response to this report, the Ministry and HMPPS should set out what progress they have made with the initiatives they put in place to support prisoner mental health since the beginning of the pandemic and the impact this has had on those in prison.
3.We have limited confidence in the Ministry’s plans for reducing the backlog in the court system, particularly in criminal courts. The backlog in criminal courts was growing before the pandemic, and many organisations have warned that it could take years to clear the backlog. But the Ministry and HMCT could not tell us what level of outstanding caseload is, in their view, acceptable. It is therefore not clear to us what the Ministry is aiming for in its plans to reduce the backlog. What is abundantly clear is the impact that delaying access to justice has on victims and witnesses, who in some cases find themselves waiting years to access justice. There is a risk that the Ministry is overly relying on the potential of technology to manage the increased demand in the court system, without yet having a clear understanding of how the rapid expansion of remote justice impacts on court users or justice outcomes.
Recommendation: The Ministry should write to the Committee within one month to set out its plan, including clear projections and timeframes, to reduce the backlog in the court system, particularly in criminal courts where the backlog is most acute.
4.Despite previous warnings, the Ministry and HMCTS do not yet have a firm grip on the data they need to understand how effective the court reform programme is or its impact on users. Despite past delays, the Ministry says that the court reform programme was on track to deliver to its revised timescale. The pandemic accelerated plans to introduce more video hearings, and it says that delays to other areas of the reform programme are within planned contingencies. The Ministry recognises that collecting the right data consistently is key to understanding whether its reforms are working and how they are impacting users in the justice system. It has plans to publish the data it has collected on the impact of remote hearings, but we are disappointed that it does not yet have a better handle on what data it needs to assess the success of the court reform programme. This is particularly worrying given our past recommendations and those published in the 2019 Digital Justice Report the Ministry itself commissioned. The Ministry accepted all the recommendations, but it appears not to have made any tangible progress.
Recommendation: In its Treasury Minute response, the Ministry should explain how it is managing the impact of the pandemic on the court reform programme, including its plans to respond to the recommendations set out in the 2019 Digital Justice report.
5.We remain concerned that the maintenance backlog poses a real threat to achieving a safe and secure prison estate able to accommodate future prison populations. The latest spending review settlement included a welcome boost of £4 billion in capital spending to support building new prisons, but only £315 million set aside for maintaining the prison estate. With a maintenance backlog valued in November 2019 at nearly £1 billion, this is significantly below what is required to maintain decent, safe prison places. The Ministry’s one-year settlement for revenue funding does not support the long-term planning that is required, and that we have repeatedly called for, to support the effective management of the prison estate. As we have seen in other sectors, there is a risk that without enough money to address resource pressures, the newly announced capital funding could end up being redirected to plug holes in the budget. The Ministry and HMPPS are confident that enough prison places are planned to meet anticipated demand, but there remains significant uncertainty in the justice system. For example, how new police officers are deployed could have significant implications for the demand for prison places.
Recommendation: As part of setting out a long-term strategy for managing the prison estate, the Ministry should explain how it will:
6.Despite the efforts of staff during the pandemic, there are clear signs of strain on people working across courts and tribunals, prisons and probation services. We remain concerned about the unprecedented pressures facing frontline staff at this time. HMPPS says that probation officer caseloads are high but manageable, and that it is seeking to address high and unbalanced caseloads for probation officers as part of the unification of probation services in June 2021. HMPPS also says that managing prison staff absences during the pandemic has been a big challenge, though at the time of our evidence session, 10% of prison staff were absent, and more staff are returning to work. We welcome the news that HMPPS has pressed on with recruiting new prison officers, particularly given the expected increase in the number of prisoners as government recruits 20,000 new police officers.
Recommendation: The Ministry, HMCTS and HMPPS should identify and agree with relevant professional bodies specific actions to support staff working across the system to manage the strain of pandemic recovery efforts, and how it will monitor and support staff through to the end of the pandemic.