Interview: Peter Lewis

Written by Joshua Chambers on 2 June 2011 in Interview

To fit budget of the Crown Prosecution Service into its spending review settlement, its chief executive Peter Lewis tells Joshua Chambers that he is dragging the justice system into the 21st century.

Is this the same Peter Lewis? We are wandering onto Southwark Bridge to pose for photographs and, despite the gloomy sky, the chief executive of the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) is relaxed, animated and gregarious as he enthuses about London’s art scene.

Yet for the past hour, sitting in his clean and functional office, Lewis has been quiet, precise and somewhat fidgety – his right hand occasionally reaching to grab the soft flesh of his earlobe – as he sets out the aims of the CPS over the next few years.

This probably reflects the pressure the service is currently under. As Lewis admits: “It’s a very challenging and demanding time.” The CPS has to cut six per cent per year from its budget until 2014-15. In cash terms, this represents a departmental expenditure (DEL) drop from £629m this year to £522m by the end of the spending review period – a loss of £107m.

With its partners in the police and the courts, Lewis explains, the CPS decided that one of the key things it could do to save money was use technology. “It’s always been an aspiration of the criminal justice system to go digital, but I think we had all thought that it would take us a long time to do it. Under the pressure of the spending review, we are taking a radical look at that,” he explains.

Through its ‘Transforming through Technology’ programme, the CPS is shaking up an old-fashioned industry and bringing it into the 21st century. It is even mooting the use of iPads in the courtroom: “Our ultimate aim is not just to be shifting information [more effectively] in our offices, but to go to court and actually present cases off the back of either a laptop or a tablet device,” Lewis says. “They’re very intuitive to use; they’re like accessing and reading a set of papers.”

The service has already started to pilot this technology and found it to be successful, Lewis says. In Merseyside, prosecutors have been using tablet computers, while in the high-profile case against alleged Milly Dowler killer Levi Bellfield – the subject of intense scrutiny and media coverage – evidence is being presented electronically, with a large plasma screen in the court and individual screens for jurors. “We’ve shown that the technology works. What we want to do is to start using that regularly so the standard becomes electronic presentation,” he says.

Currently, the justice system is totally reliant on paper files – which are costly to transport, and difficult to store. “If you go into court at the moment, what you will see is prosecutors with a big pile of files; and if you came back to our office you would see those files being stored and administered, with people chasing around to find them and put them in bundles for the next day,” Lewis explains. The CPS, police and Ministry of Justice (MoJ) are therefore building a “cloud” storage system called the Repository to store information electronically; this Lewis says, will be in place by the autumn.

Can Lewis be confident that the new systems will keep such vital data safe? After all, keeping sensitive information secure has not always been the government’s strong suit; in 2008, the CPS mislaid a disk containing the DNA of 2,000 criminal suspects and only found it again a year later. “We are confident that this is a secure environment,” he responds, adding that “moving tons and tons of paper around isn’t exactly the most secure way”. And what happens if someone leaves an iPad on the train? “It will be rock-solid encryption,” he stresses.

Lewis is confident that data will be secure because one of the service’s IT suppliers, Logica, is “a real leader in secure systems; it’s one of the reasons why we decided to go with them a few years ago”. The CPS recently renegotiated its contract with Logica to help it meet its spending review target; the CPS managed to cut the contract value by 20 per cent a year from 2012–15, he says. Further, the contract has also been altered – without extra cost – to take into account the requirements of the Transforming through Technology programme.

The CPS’s digital drive will use as much existing infrastructure as possible, Lewis explains. “Obviously, there isn’t the money to spend on new systems. Frankly, we haven’t got time for long-scale IT procurement exercises, so what we’re doing is making the best use of what we’ve already got,” he says. The CPS and its partners already have good basic IT infrastructure, he adds, and have been using secure email systems to transfer data for some time.

Meanwhile, the new Repository system builds on current systems, and the CPS is currently negotiating with the police and the MoJ to determine who pays what. The contract for the Repository system is being awarded without opening it up to tender, he explains. “We’re using an existing supplier [Cable and Wireless] because this needs to be secure; it needs to work on the existing infrastructure that we’ve already got.”

Lewis constantly has to work with other organisations, and reels off a list: the MoJ; HMRC; the UK Border Agency; the National Offender Management system; and the Home Office and its agencies, including the National Policing Improvement Agency and the Serious and Organised Crime Agency. In the past, he believes, these organisations have been too fragmented in their digital efforts; and there is certainly talk of further organisational change.

However, while the CPS merged with HMRC’s prosecuting office last year, Lewis is coy about future changes, stating that “machinery of government is a thing for ministers, not for officials”.

He does, however, stress the benefits of the CPS remaining independent: “It’s obviously really important that those who administer a coercive part of government… have checks and balances in place. That’s why you have an independent judiciary; it’s been recognised for some time that you need an independent prosecutor, and police also operate with independence,” he says.

Meanwhile, over the past year the CPS’s structure as also been transformed to cut costs. Its administrative areas were cut from 42 to 13, “which has enabled us to save on the management cadre within the organisation”, he says. Property is being rationalised and the HQ workforce halved.

Of its 9,000 staff, the CPS has already lost 500 people and will let a further 1,000 go. Lewis says that the organisation is not making people compulsorily redundant, but has a voluntary exit scheme in place. “We’ve had what I regard as a healthy natural turnover of staff, which is continuing: we do want people to come and join the CPS, but equally we’re happy when people move on to other careers,” he says.

However, private sector employment for specialist prosecutors may be difficult to find. Lewis looks at the floor as he explains that “the legal profession has its own issues at the moment: legal aid is under pressure, criminal defence firms have also got their challenges… so there isn’t a big ready market – but for our administrative staff and corporate HQ staff, there are other jobs out there. They clearly are finding other jobs, and our leaving rate is holding up remarkably well.”

And despite the challenges the CPS faces, Lewis is enjoying the role. Indeed, he says he is relishing the task: “Obviously, the last year’s been a fantastic experience because of the pace of change,” he says. “It’s a really exciting and challenging job.”

As the interview ends, we leave the building and wander onto the bridge. Once the photographs are taken, Lewis starts to walk off – but then has a thought. Turning on his heel, he urges me and the photographer to visit TateModern and “check out the Miro!”

Then, like a lawyer who has just won his case, he strides confidently back onto the South Bank.

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