The Justice Team appointed by Theresa May answered questions from MPs in Parliament yesterday. The Lord Chancellor (and Secretary of State) Liz Truss gave evidence to the Justice Select Committee earlier today.
There were five things of note:
1) About that Prison Reform Bill...
In February, the former Prime Minister, David Cameron, gave a flagship speech about prison reform. The proposed Prisons and Court Reform Bill was the centrepiece of the Queen’s speech. The former Lord Chancellor, Michael Gove, indicated that there would be legislation within this parliament.
Liz Truss was remarkably lukewarm and evasive when asked about the plans for legislation: "…we will be looking at that. That will be in the plan. We will be looking at that closely."
When pressed, she said that she would not be committing to any specific pieces of legislation but would be laying out a plan which would outline what legislation might be required and when.
A significant proportion of the prison reform proposals outlined by Cameron and Gove would require legislation in order to be implemented. Legislation notoriously takes a long time to pass. The absence of any commitment to legislation in the foreseeable future could mark a mortal blow to effective prison reform.
2) The prison population is not a primary concern
Truss was asked whether or not, at the end of her tenure, she should be judged by whether or not the prison population had reduced.
She said that it was not a metric by which she would judge herself.
She would wish to be judged by whether or not there had been a change in what happens in prisons, whether or not prisoners were purposely employed, free of drugs and getting jobs on release.
She did not give any indication that she saw a link between the size of the prison population and the ability of prison regimes to deliver the kind of interventions and support which have a real impact upon re-offending.
She made vague reference to potential benefits of diversion schemes without any specific detail of what this might mean in practice.
She was asked by one of the Conservative members of the select committee whether or not there were any plans to abolish automatic release at the halfway point for determinate sentenced prisoners without any assessment of their risk or conduct.
She did not appear to fully understand what the current policy is or the implications of changing it ("We need to look at what the policy is now and where we need to get to").
A reversal of this policy would mean an inevitable increase in prison numbers (as less prisoners would be released) and would provide a major strain on resources.
It would be very surprising if she has not yet been given a clear brief from MOJ civil servants that any policies which serve to significantly increase the prison population are completely unsustainable and that the direction of travel for some time has been to find ways to arrest the rise in the prison population.
She did say that she was committed to the prison building programme under which nine new prisons will be built. She referred to this as being necessary to enable the closure of dilapidated prisons which are no longer fit for purpose.
She was pressed on details of the programme and whether or not it was achievable for five new prisons to be built within the projected timetable of 44 months. She was confident that this timescale was deliverable but was unable to even indicate which the chosen sites for these five new prisons were.
There was absolutely no mention at all of IPP prisoners or the parole system.
It is not possible to adequately reform the prison system without getting to grips with the significant population of IPP prisoners who are still stuck in the system alongside a very large cohort of other prisoners serving indeterminate sentences.
These prisoners are all subject to the parole system which still cannot deliver parole hearings on time. This continues to create significant bottlenecks in the system and incur significant costs to the Ministry of Justice. 3) We will not be withdrawing from the European Convention on Human Rights; we do need a British Bill of Rights but we are not quite sure why
Unsurprisingly, Liz Truss confirmed that there were no plans to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights.
As this was stated explicitly by the new Prime Minister when she took office, one would not expect anything different.
She was asked what the point of drafting and implementing a British Bill of Rights would be if we were to stay within the European Convention on Human Rights.
Her response to this was frankly toe-curling: "a British Bill of Rights will protect our rights in a better way".
She stated that the problems with human rights had emerged since the Human Rights Act. She did not articulate what these problems were and why they had occurred.
She was asked by one of the committee members whether the intention was that UK residents would no longer be able to exercise their rights directly in UK courts and would instead have to go to Strasbourg to do so. She had absolutely no response to this other than that details would be discussed and proposals set out in due course.
She was similarly evasive when asked, during Justice Questions yesterday, which of the European Convention rights she would wish to discard in the British Bill of Rights.
There has not been any explanation whatsoever of how a British Bill of Rights will differ from the European Convention on Human Rights.
In the absence of this, a British Bill of rights would appear to be an expensive, time-consuming and entirely unnecessary vanity exercise.
4) Brexit – What is the plan?
This is yet another example of the shocking lack of planning which has taken place both before and since the referendum to anticipate the implications of Brexit.
There is a great deal of co-operation which govern criminal justice issues amongst members of the European Union.
She was asked specifically about the Prisoner Transfer Agreement and the European Arrest Warrant.
She was asked what the plan was to deal with this and with ongoing negotiations and agreements covering criminal justice issues with European partners.
She explained that her department would be working closely with the Brexit department and that the Brexit department was collecting issues and data. She could provide no detail as to plans or timescales.
When one of the members of the committee asked whether or not she would welcome the assistance of the Justice Committee in looking at the implications of Brexit for the justice system, she appeared to be visibly relieved and described it as an excellent idea.
5) The Court Reform Programme is alive and well
The Lord Chancellor confirmed that the investment programme for the modernisation of the courts system would continue. She confirmed that £700m had been earmarked and protected for this programme.
She acknowledged that a massive, complex IT programme upon which the justice system would become more and more reliant constituted a very serious risk to her department.
She explained that people should be reassured by the fact that it would be rolled out in chunks and that a lot of it was in place already within the criminal courts and was working effectively (this might be regarded as contentious by some).
She explained that the courts system would become more modern, on-line and reflect how we operate today.
She acknowledged that everyone needed to have access to the system.
This is an important acknowledgement but, again the detail is still woefully absent. Although use of IT is prevalent throughout the country, there are still significant swathes of the population who are either not IT literate, have significant learning difficulties or do not have the kind of regular and reliable access to IT necessary for meaningful access to virtual, online courts and ongoing court proceedings.