12.We have previously reported on HMCTS’s £1.2 billion programme to modernise courts, a very ambitious programme aiming to change how people access justice using more technology, closing courts and centralising customer service. We were concerned that HMCTS was at risk of falling behind schedule despite extending its timetable from four to six years, and that the pace of reform and pressure to make savings was limiting HMCTS’s ability to evaluate the impact on users and justice outcomes, particularly for vulnerable users. The Ministry and HMCTS told us that despite the pandemic, the programme is in its final stages and will not require a further extension to its timetable. They told us that some parts of the programme, including video hearings, were accelerated during the pandemic and that about 20,000 video hearings were now taking place each week. The Ministry and HMCTS told us they were confident that the parts of the programme that are behind schedule are within the contingencies they had planned for. They were also confident that, with regards to the reunification of probation services, that private sector suppliers will maintain their services until the handover in June 2021, but that they had contingency plans in place should a supplier fail before that time.
13.The Ministry’s new accounting officer told us of her commitment to collect good quality, consistent data to support the reform programme, including data on user satisfaction and justice outcomes. While we welcome this renewed commitment, we are disappointed that the Ministry has yet to make any significant progress on implementing the recommendations of the Digital Justice report it commissioned in 2019. Despite the court reform programme entering its final stages, the Ministry and HMCTS have also failed to publish the promised evaluation framework that will set out how the Ministry will robustly assess the impact of its reform programmes.
14.The 2020 spending review included £4 billion in capital funding to support the provision of 18,000 new prison places over four years. But beyond this isolated multi-year commitment, the one-year spending review settlement makes it difficult for the Ministry and its agencies to plan for the long term. The Ministry and HMPPS were confident that the planned prison places and temporary accommodation would be enough to meet the expected increase in the prison population to 96,000 prisoners by 2026 and that they will receive enough revenue funding to service this new capacity. They recognised that uncertainty remains in the system that could impact demand projections, including the effects of decisions of how the 20,000 new police officers are deployed.
15.We have previously reported that the Ministry and HMPPS’ management of the prison estate has resulted in a staggering backlog of maintenance work. The backlog in maintenance is now estimated at £1 billion. The recent spending review included £315 million in 2020–21 to address this, significantly below what is required to maintain the prison estate. We raised the risk that, without enough funding to meet resource pressures, the Ministry and HMPPS could again end up redirecting capital funding to gaps in the budget. The Ministry told us it was confident that HM Treasury understood the value for money implications of insufficiently funding the maintenance backlog and that they were in discussions to secure future funding to meet the challenge.
16.We received evidence from the Bar Council raising concerns around the safety of court staff during the pandemic. A recent survey they conducted showed 84% of barristers who attended court in December 2020 had concerns about their safety and wellbeing. We questioned the Ministry and its agencies on the impact of Covid-19 on staff sickness rates. The Ministry told us that the Covid-19 related absences rate in the court system was under 2% and that there had been few cases of transmission identified within the court system itself. HMPPS told us of the short-term challenges related to the number of staff that have been on Covid-19 related sick leave, and that 10% of its staff were currently absent. We welcomed HMPPS’ work to support staff returning to work after periods of absence caused by the pandemic.
17.The pandemic and increasing demand on the justice system will continue to put pressure on staff who are at the heart of ensuring prisons are well run, court backlogs are addressed, and probation services are effective. HMPPS told us of its ongoing work to continue to recruit staff after an initial hiatus at the start of the pandemic. We heard that between October 2016 and September 2020, HMPPS recruited an extra 3,844 prison officers, that 1,464 officers had recently completed training and a further 522 officers are currently undergoing training. The Ministry also told us it has progressed well with recruiting 1,600 additional court staff as part of its work to support the court system to recover from the pandemic.
18.HMPPS assured us that as the programme to reunify probation services was on scheduled to complete in June 2021. It told us that it was consistently monitoring the caseloads of probations officers but that these remain high. HMPPS told us it had committed £155 million to improving IT systems to help probation officers do their jobs more efficiently and to recruit more staff.
15 Committee of Public Accounts, Transforming courts and tribunals, Fifty-sixth Report of Session 2017–19, HC 976, 20 July 2018
16 Qq 14–17
17 Qq 51–53
18 The Legal Education Foundation, Digital Justice: HMCTS data strategy and delivering access to justice, October 2019
19 Qq 10–14
20 Qq 46, 58, 59, 60
21 Public Accounts Committee, Improving the prison estate, Fifteenth Report of Session 2019–21, HC 244, 11 September 2020
22 Qq 66–69
23 The Bar Council submission, para 10
24 Q 4, 35, 38–40
25 Qq 4, 35
26 Qq 35–37
27 Q 4
28 Qq 53–57