A Labour MP has accused the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) of lacking “credibility” after failing to spend almost £1bn in the last financial year.
Questioning Antonia Romeo, permanent secretary at the MoJ, at yesterday’s session of the justice committee, Maria Eagle said “going to the Treasury and saying you desperately need a billion pounds and not spending it doesn’t do a lot for your credibility”.
Later in the session Kevin Sadler, acting chief executive of HM Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS), said there was no point in the Treasury providing more money for the maintenance of court buildings, where the backlog of work is around £1bn, because it could not be spent without taking courts out of service.
Ms Eagle said the MoJ had secured £11.2bn for the financial year 2020-21, but only spent £10.3bn.
Ms Romeo said in response that the pandemic had created a “significant amount of uncertainty” about funding of court services at a time of falling income from fees.
In October 2020, the MoJ had believed the country would be coming out of the pandemic and it needed more money to “power through” the recovery. Instead, the third national lockdown reduced spending both on courts and prisons.
Ms Romeo said forecasting was “very difficult” during the pandemic, not just at the MoJ but in other government departments.
The ministry was now “in a good position” to recover, though it would be “challenging for us to keep the system going at full throttle”.
Mr Sadler said the Treasury had been “quite generous” in providing funding for court maintenance last year, with £105m spent on 165 court estates.
He said Covid had “created challenges”, with heating and ventilation having to work “harder than they should”.
Despite the overall court maintenance backlog remaining at £1bn, he said it would be “unreasonable for the Treasury to cough up enormous sums of money which we wouldn’t be able to spend because it would mean taking courts out of service”.
He added: “We have made some significant improvements in the last couple of years.”
On technology, Ms Eagle asked about the MoJ’s decision to write-off of £18m spent on the developing the Common Platform for the criminal justice system, linking the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), courts and criminal lawyers.
Ms Romeo said the write-off was a result of the Common Platform being “a long programme over a number of years” and the CPS ending up with “something they didn’t want”.
Mr Sadler said the platform was live in 44% of criminal courts, and he hoped to “restart the roll-out” and complete it over the next few months.
He said the Public and Commercial Services Union had not gone “on strike” over the project, but was “campaigning” on the issue, and some court staff were “concerned about the effects” on the justice system.
“I disagree with them. It’s working, and working perfectly well in 44% of courts.”
Conservative MP Sir Bob Neill, chair of the justice committee, ended the session by questioning whether the MoJ’s target of reducing the Crown Court backlog to from over 60,000 to 53,000 by March 2025 was acceptable.
Ms Romeo replied that if the MoJ “could get it down more quickly, we would do” – it was judicial, rather than physical, capacity that was the constraint.
Mr Sadler said the county courts had been hit particularly badly by the pandemic because of their greater reliance on paper than other parts of the justice system.
He added that the lack of district judges was particularly acute in London and the South-East, and he was working with the Master of the Rolls, Sir Geoffrey Vos, to see whether more work could be done by administrative staff, and greater use made of both technology and dispute resolution.
Ms Sadler retires this month and will be replaced by Nick Goodwin, chief executive of the Office for the Public Guardian. Before becoming the Public Guardian in 2019, he was the MoJ’s director for access to justice policy.