Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.Donate to our crowdfunder
It is a great pleasure to conclude this debate. I start by thanking my hon. Friend Robert Neill, the Chairman of the Justice Committee, as well as the other Committee members here, for securing this afternoon’s very important debate. When I attended the opening of the legal year on Tuesday, it became clear to me just how many of the senior judiciary in this country the Committee Chairman knows. I will certainly endeavour to listen to him, and to other members of the Committee from both sides of the House, as I embark on my new role.
As my hon. Friend Alex Chalk and Bambos Charalambous indicated, justice is of fundamental, vital importance to the functioning of our society. Justice is the foundation of any civilised society. Without justice, there is no freedom, and without the rule of law, there can be no prosperity, so the state discharges few functions that are more important than ensuring that justice is done. I join Members on both sides of the House in paying tribute to judges, lawyers, the police, Crown Prosecution Service officials, court officials, prison officers, probation officials, and of course Ministry of Justice civil servants for their work in making sure that our justice system functions.
As this debate is on funding, I should like to comment on the overall funding figures. A number of Members have referred to a reduction in spending of 40% since 2010. It is important to mention that that figure is based on figures for the 2015 spending review. Since then, there has been additional resource spending on Ministry of Justice matters from a variety of sources, and when that spending is added back in, the real-terms reduction is 21%. That is still a reduction, but of a great deal less than 40%. To put that in context, the British crime survey, which produces the most reliable crime statistics—in fact, the only ones recognised by the Office for National Statistics—finds a 33% reduction in crime over the same period; that is significant, and we should bear it in mind.
That said, there are clearly issues with the way that various parts of our criminal justice system operate that need addressing—issues that Members on both sides of the House have powerfully and eloquently referred to. That is why it is welcome, as some Members have acknowledged, that in the spending review statement made just a few weeks ago in this House, it was announced that the Ministry of Justice’s resource budget will increase from £7.631 billion this financial year to £8.142 billion in the next financial year. That is an increase of £511 million, which is over half a billion pounds, 6.7% in cash terms, or 4.9% in real terms. I am glad that Members across the House welcome that increase. On the capital side, the capital DEL budget has increased from £417 million in the current year to £620 million next year—a 48% increase.
The Department is going through the allocations process to work out where the extra £511 million will go. I heard powerful representations about the probation service from David Hanson and Bambos Charalambous, and I think pretty much every Member who spoke in the debate mentioned the prison system. My hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst spoke about the courts system, and many Members discussed the legal aid budget, including Ellie Reeves, who spoke powerfully. What has been said in this debate will be carefully looked at as the allocations are made. However, we should remember that the reason why these savings had to be made was the catastrophic state of the public finances 10 years ago, so as we look forward to next year, as the economy continues to prosper and as public finances come under control, I hope that the 2020 spending review can do a lot more for the Ministry of Justice and the various areas that it looks after.
I will now respond to some of the specific points raised in the debate. On prison places, I am delighted that two prisons are now under construction, with 3,360 new places. Construction started just last week at the new prison in Wellingborough, and the Secretary of State turned the first sod of earth with his very own hands. That £2.5 billion programme will, as Members have said, add 10,000 places by the middle of the 2020s.
Members also made reference to the need to maintain and improve conditions in prisons themselves, with Andy Slaughter both referred specifically to the conditions within prisons. The Government fully recognise that issue, and I can confirm today that, in addition to the spending review 2019 figures that the House heard a few weeks ago, an extra £156 million will be spent next year expressly on prison maintenance and conditions. That is a 75% increase across the capital and resource budgets on the amount planned in the spending review, so I am sure that everybody in the House who raised the important matter of prison maintenance will be pleased to hear that.
Several Members mentioned the number of serving prison officers, including Grahame Morris a few moments ago. Members will therefore be pleased to hear that, as of June this year, there were 22,321 serving prison officers, which is an increase of 4,366 since 2016. The shadow Justice Secretary said a moment ago that 2,500 extra officers were announced in 2016, so I am pleased that we have delivered almost double that.
The hon. Member for Hammersmith talked about an important trial that took place in 10 of the most challenging prisons to try to improve prison safety and address, for example, assaults on prison officers. The trial published its results in August this year, and assaults fell by 16% and positive drug tests by 50% across those 10 prisons. Those are important results, and I hope that the pilots can be expanded. I will certainly be passing that point on to the Minister of State for Prisons and Probation.
We heard a bit less about our courts than about prisons, but they are also extremely important, with my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst drawing particular attention to them. The digitisation process is not, as he said, a panacea. It is part of the solution, not the whole solution, but it is welcome that uncontested divorce proceedings, probate proceedings, the issuance and response to civil money claims and minor pleas can now all be done online, saving both participants in the criminal justice system and the court system itself a great deal of time and money. The common platform designed to make criminal cases run more effectively and efficiently between the police, the CPS and the courts will start to be rolled out in the first half of next year. That will do more to make the courts run more efficiently.
My hon. Friend the Select Committee Chairman mentioned issues with sitting days and maintenance in the court system, which I recognise. As the Minister with responsibility for courts rather than prisons, I will of course make the case for sitting days and for the maintenance programme in the court system as we go through the allocation process in the coming two or three months to divide up that half a billion pounds of extra money.
On court closures, which the shadow Secretary of State raised a few moments ago, the courts that were closed—those that were consulted on in 2015—were running at about one-third utilisation, partly because of the one-third reduction in BCS crime since 2010. Clearly, having courts running at only one-third utilisation does not make a lot of sense, but before there are any further closures, there will be a consultation process and extremely careful thought, for the access to justice reasons that he and other Members mentioned.
Legal aid was mentioned by a number of Members, particularly my hon. Friends the Members for Cheltenham and for Bromley and Chislehurst, and the hon. Members for Lewisham West and Penge and for Hammersmith. I am pleased to remind the House that last year the rates for criminal barristers were increased by around 10%—that was a £23 million commitment—and, as Members said, the criminal legal aid review is under way. In fact, some parts of that review, because they are so urgent, will report early: the parts related to unused material, cracked trials, paper hearing cases, pre-charge advice and payments for sending cases to the Crown court will report next month. The rest of the review will report in the summer of next year, and I hope it will address some of the concerns hon. Members raised about the legal aid system.
The hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge mentioned victims. They are very important—particularly victims of sexual assault. The victims and witnesses budget is £92 million, and I am sure she will join me in welcoming last week’s announcement of an extra £5 million specifically to help victims of sexual violence.
Let me conclude with sentencing, which the Lord Chancellor and I have responsibility for. I support the change in the automatic release point for standard determinate sentences from half to two thirds, because I think the public expect someone who is sentenced to serve the majority of their sentence. Releasing them at the halfway point undermines public confidence in the sentence that is handed down. The change aligns the release point with the discretionary release point for extended determinate sentences, at two thirds. That will, of course, apply only to the more serious cases; it will not apply to all cases where a standard determinate sentence is handed down.