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

Queen’s Speech - Debate (3rd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:46 pm on 8th January 2020.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Ramsbotham Lord Ramsbotham Crossbench 8:46 pm, 8th January 2020

My Lords, in the short time available I intend to focus on the justice section of the gracious Speech, particularly the announcement that there is to be a royal commission

“to review and improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the criminal justice process.”

I note that in yesterday’s Times there was a suggestion that this should include the organisation of the police, last subject of a separate royal commission in 1962. I agree with the noble Viscount, Lord Hailsham, that this should be repeated.

I am concentrating on prisons and probation for two reasons. First, their evolving problems have been catalogued in detail, over many years, by successive quality assurers—the Chief Inspectors of Prisons and the Chief Inspectors of Probation—so it will not be difficult to draw up a comprehensive list of what needs to be reviewed. Secondly, on 3 October 2019 I tabled a Motion that

“this House takes note of the case for reforming the management and treatment of offenders in prison and the community” in which I called for an outside inquiry, akin to a royal commission, to be appointed as quickly as possible, not least to determine whether punishment or rehabilitation should be the primary aim of the Prison and Probation Service. I did that because, in the past,

“Whenever an issue of public policy required thorough examination and the Government were not committed to a definite policy, the task used to be entrusted to an invited group of persons from outside the relevant departments, such as a royal commission.”—[Official Report, 3/10/19; col. 1810.]

The last Royal Commission on the Criminal Justice System reported in 1993, since when all reviews have been carried out in-house, despite the known imperfections of that process. Because Ministry of Justice officials have presided over failure for so long, and because some existing practices need to be questioned, I do not believe that they are the right persons to carry out a review.

The Ministry of Justice rejected my request on the grounds that Ministers were not convinced that a review was necessary in view of the reforms already outlined. I therefore welcome this change of heart and, in view of their fundamental importance, ask the Minister whether she can tell the House anything about the commission’s timings, chairman and terms of reference.

The lack of consistent strategic direction of the criminal justice system, amounting to successive Governments not being committed to a definite policy, was made manifestly obvious in 2012, when the coalition Government introduced a legal aid, sentencing and rehabilitation of offenders Bill, which was quickly renamed the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill. Of course, any sentence is a punishment, awarded by the courts following a crime, but then what? This lack of a definite policy was highlighted by the tragic event at the Fishmongers’ Hall last month. The Prime Minister immediately focused on punishment, while the father of Jack Merritt, one of the victims, memorably took the opposite view. In my debate I mentioned a suggested joint aim for the prison and probation services:

“It is our duty to help all those committed by the courts to live useful and law-abiding lives, with the qualifications that they must be treated with humanity and not allowed to escape from prison or breach the terms of their supervision order in the community.”—[Official Report, 3/10/19; col. 1810.]

As far as prisons and probation are concerned, I encourage the Government to make the terms of reference of the royal commission as wide as possible, including the outlining of a definite policy for the criminal justice system, the governance of prisons and probation and the processes by which offenders are to be treated and managed. They should also include initial assessment, the provision of healthcare and the treatment of women and children, foreign nationals, the elderly and indeterminate-sentenced prisoners. Above all, I hope that the Government, on behalf of the public, whose protection they are responsible for providing, will listen to the words of a former prisoner:

“We should at least try to rehabilitate, and not just give up on prisoners.”