Autumn Statement 2023 Debate

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Department: HM Treasury
Wednesday 29th November 2023

(7 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord Thomas of Gresford Portrait Lord Thomas of Gresford (LD)
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My Lords, I also welcome the noble Baroness to the Treasury Bench. I think she will find it interesting to be shaping the state in the future.

The noble Lord, Lord Clarke of Nottingham, in his evidence to the Constitution Committee in June of last year, said that

“there are no votes in criminal justice”.

He continued:

“The criminal justice system is in the most appalling state. I would never have believed it”.

He added:

“The present Lord Chancellor has the misfortune of presiding over a department both the large chunks of which”—

the courts and prisons—

“are in a … dire state”—

worse than he can ever remember.

He said that the Lord Chancellor lacked the necessary political clout to get a sensible settlement from the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Well, he should know; he held both offices of state successively and, after being at the Treasury, at the Ministry of Justice he was the first to take the knee to austerity cuts in departmental budgets at the beginning of the Cameron Government. The Ministry of Justice has never recovered.

The analysis of the MoJ’s statistics published in October by the Institute for Government underlines the present crisis. First, there is a backlog of serious cases awaiting trial in the Crown Courts which, adjusted for complexity, amounts to a record high of 89,939 cases. This seriously diminishes the capacity of our courts system to deliver justice. Victims become disheartened and withdraw their complaints, to the distress of themselves and their families; the memories of witnesses fade; and juries grapple with events that occurred years before the trial. As the noble Lord, Lord Eatwell, pointed out, our prisons are overloaded with unconvicted prisoners on remand, awaiting trial—currently more than 15,000. Indeed, 28% of cases in the backlog have been waiting for over a year and 10% for over two years. This represents an increase of 54.2% in prisoners on remand between 2020 and the present.

As I said in my contribution to the debate on the King’s Speech three weeks ago, the major reasons for the backlog are a lack of judges, causing a serious decrease in the number of sitting days, and a lack of barristers, both to prosecute and defend. The diminution in criminal legal aid by 41% since 2010—the cause of the barristers’ strike—has destroyed the attractiveness of the criminal Bar as a career. So I repeat my call for incentives to aid recruitment; if the Government can fund £26,000 bursaries for young teachers to teach maths and the sciences, they need a similar scheme to fill up the vital vacancies at the criminal Bar.

The dire state of prisons was highlighted by the MoJ’s own figures. The backlog of major capital works was £1.4 billion in July 2023. It has been increasing by £220 million a year since 2019. Prisons are filthy and crumbling.

The Prison Service suffers from recruitment problems, compounded by a failure to retain staff at an increasingly alarming rate—currently 15% per year. Between December 2022 and October last, the prison population has increased at a rate of 605 prisoners per month, to reach the highest figure ever, of over 88,000.

The effect on prisoners themselves is that 42% of male prisoners are locked up for 22 hours a day during the week. Education and rehabilitation courses have been dramatically curtailed. The Guardian recently reported that the number of self-harm incidents, including cutting, overdose and hanging, reached the second-highest on record in March 2023, with 733 incidents for every 1,000 prisoners. Three-quarters of the prison population are engaged in cutting, overdose, hanging and other such activities.

Nick Vineall KC, chairman of the Bar Council, said this week that

“the consequences of underfunding are extremely serious for society as whole. Ultimately, we must have a system that properly supports victims and ensures that the guilty are punished and the innocent walk free. We no longer have such a system”.

The Government may be anxious about victims, but the aim of rehabilitation is not to give criminals an easy time; the aim is simply that there be fewer victims in the future. I could go on, but the picture is clear.

The Autumn Statement increases MoJ day-to-day spending from £9.4 billion for 2022-23 to £9.8 billion for 2023-24—a rise of 4% but in real terms a cut, set against the OBR’s projection of 7.4% inflation next year. The capital budget will fall to £1.5 billion in 2024, below the current capital budget for this year, of £1.7 billion.

Justice is not a peripheral matter: it is a central pillar of our society. When it fails, the stability of the state, and its very existence, are at risk. There are innumerable examples from history, both past and present.

The Autumn Statement is peddled with mendacious spin, with claims of tax reliefs as the actual tax burden rises. It is a final blow to the credibility of this Conservative Government. When they pack their tents and steal away next year, they will leave behind the appalling mess of the criminal justice system, to which the noble Lord, Lord Clarke, has referred. Another Government, I hope, will clean it up.