Spending watchdog warns of pressures piling up for 'already stretched' MoJ

Snapshot report contrasts shortage of prison places with boosted sentencing projections and delayed court hearings
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By Jim Dunton

08 Jan 2021

The National Audit Office has highlighted a looming series of pressures the Ministry of Justice is facing as it deals with the multiple impacts of Covid-19 and new government initiatives.

It said prison-capacity reductions caused by the pandemic and a backlog of court cases set to stretch into 2023 would be accompanied by a surge in demand for court time and potentially prison space caused by additional police officers being recruited in the coming years.

The public spending watchdog's latest departmental overview report said the combination of current government initiatives focusing on crime and managing the ongoing impact of Covid-19 would “increase demands on an already stretched criminal justice system”.

The report noted that HM Prison and Probation Service’s efforts to limit the spread of coronavirus in England’s prisons had seen 28 deaths of prisoners up to the end of October 2020 – compared with a worst-case-scenario projection of 2,700.

But the NAO said measures to manage the risk of Covid had reduced the total useable operational capacity of prisons by 4.8% between the beginning of March and the beginning of December last year, cutting the maximum number of inmates to 80,854.

“As at 4 December 2020, 97.5% of this capacity was being used and more than a fifth of prison cells before the outbreak of Covid-19 were crowded,” it said.

“There is therefore limited capacity within the prison system once the rate of sentencing increases again.”

The NAO said the government was already nearly more than one-quarter of the way towards meeting its 2019 commitment to recruit an additional 20,000 police officers by March 2023.

It said the Institute for Government and the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy had estimated that the additional officers would result in the police charging up to 33% more crimes by 2023-24, placing additional pressure on the criminal justice system.

Meanwhile, the NAO pointed to a warning from HM Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate that the backlog of cases in the criminal justice system was increasing. Cases that did go to court taking longer than normal due to the challenges of social distancing.

“Already, some criminal trials are listed by courts to begin in 2023,” it said.

The report noted that while the introduction of so-called “Nightingale courts” – named after the temporary NHS Nightingale Hospitals introduced at pace in spring last year – would help to process the backlog of court cases, the situation would push additional pressure onto prisons.

An MoJ spokesperson said the ministry was developing a long-term prison-estate strategy to ensure its public protection obligations were met and pointed to funding set out in November’s Spending Review as a way “significant progress” would be made in the medium term.

“We are investing £4bn in 18,000 prison places – the largest prison-building programme in generations – to keep the public safe and ensure we will always be able to keep offenders off the streets,” they said.

“Thousands of extra places are already under construction, and we are developing a long-term prison strategy to ensure we deliver the places we need for the future.”

Elsewhere, the NAO said that responding to Covid-19 had created new spending pressures for the MoJ at the same time as reducing its income from court fines and fees. It said the ministry’s financial planning had also been “made more challenging” by HM Treasury’s decision to conduct a one-year Spending Review last year, rather than a longer-term settlement.

An additional area of risk for the MoJ is the restructuring of probation services, which is planned to complete by June this year. It will see the National Probation Service taking responsibility for supervising all offenders across 12 new regions after the scrapping of the Transforming Rehabilitation programme.

The NAO said that as well as managing the risk of transitioning to the new probation structure, the ministry would need to manage the potential for existing private providers to withdraw services or fail outright in the runup to their contracts ending.

In December 2017, parliament’s Public Accounts Committee said the government had “set services up to fail” with its reforms, which introduced a payment by results model that “massively underestimated” running costs.

Earlier this week the MoJ announced that Antonia Romeo would become its new permanent secretary on 18 January. Romeo is currently perm sec at the Department for International Trade but spent much of her earlier career at the MoJ.

Mike Driver is currently interim perm sec at the ministry, following the end of Sir Richard Heaton's five-year appointment last summer. 

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