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April 2021 - Robert Buckland QC MP

Minutes of the Virtual Annual General Meeting of the All-Party Group on Penal Affairs, held on 20 April 2021

Guest speaker

Robert Buckland QC MP

Present

Paul Maynard MP (in the Chair)
Lord Bradley
Lord Carlile
Lord Dubs
Lord McNally
Lord Ponsonby

Mark Day, clerk to the group, welcomed everybody to the meeting, which was also the annual general meeting of the APPG.  He was pleased to say that the co-chairs, Paul Maynard MP and Lord Ramsbotham, had been nominated and said they were both happy to continue in office.  No further nominations had been received, so he was pleased to hand over to Paul Maynard MP who would chair the rest of the meeting.

Paul Maynard MP said that that was the easiest election he had had in fifteen years. He was pleased to welcome such a wide variety of participants to the meeting.  The meeting being quorate, he went through the other nominations received. Marie Rimmer MP and Andrew Selous MP had both agreed to continue as Vice Chairs and Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts had agreed to continue as Secretary.  The meeting had been advertised in the All Party notices in accordance with the rules, no other nominations had been received and, there being no objections from those present, those nominations were approved.  The financial statement had been circulated, and would be published on the APPG website. Any questions should be directed to Mark Day, Clerk.

He was grateful to Lord Ramsbotham, whose experience in the sector was invaluable, for co-chairing the group, and to all those regular participants with similar experience, which made the group’s discussions so valuable for ministers.   He extended members’ grateful thanks to the Trustees of the Barrow Cadbury Trust for continuing to fund the group, and also to the Prison Reform Trust, the Chair James Timpson, and the director Peter Dawson.  He was a great admirer of PRT’s work.  He also thanked Mark Day, Clerk; Zoe Burton, administrator; and Julia Braggins, who took the minutes.

The meeting was expecting the Secretary of State to arrive shortly, but meanwhile Paul Maynard MP invited questions and comments from the meeting.  He was asked what the APPG’s future programme would be.  He answered that no programme was yet in place, partly because all concerned were waiting to see how soon meetings could resume physically in Westminster.  A personal wish was for a post-Covid review of how the prison system had dealt with the consequences of the pandemic, but obviously this needed further discussion with others.

Mark Day said that normal procedure was for the officers of the group, once formally elected, to meet to discuss and decide the programme for the year.  He also asked that, once the Secretary of State was able to join the meeting, any questions should be posed via the chat function, and he would read them out.

Paul Maynard MP welcomed the suggestion from Lord Carlile that the APPG could hold a session on how delays in the courts could be expedited, post-Covid. As a former Courts Minister he was particularly interested in what could be done in this important area. An observer wanted to know whether there would still be the possibility of virtual access, if meetings in Westminster resumed. Paul Maynard MP said that arrangements for hybrid proceedings were in hand for parliamentarians, and he hoped this might be possible for other meetings too.  Further information would follow.

As regards the courts question, Oliver Lodge of the National Audit Office said that a review was on-going, and would be published in September.  Paul Maynard said he found it odd that the additional courts were named ‘Nightingale Courts’, rather than the original proposal to name them ‘Blackstone Courts’, which had seemed more appropriate.  

The Lord Chancellor having arrived, he was welcomed by Paul Maynard MP.

The Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary, Rt Hon Robert Buckland QC MP, thanked Paul Maynard and said he appreciated the continued commitment shown by participants in the group. He said it was nearly two years since he and Paul had been brought into the Justice department together. He continued: ‘I have used the time, I would like to think, very productively, and hopefully, in being here for the better part of two years now, bring a much needed element of continuity, and I hope some professional and institutional experience to this particular role. 

I was very keen to talk to you about the work I continue to do on neuro-diversity – in other words that umbrella term for a variety of brain conditions that we know are particularly prevalent within the criminal justice system. When I launched my white paper, A Smarter Approach to Sentencing, last September, within that document I announced my intention to have a call for evidence on the issue of neuro-diversity.  I think many of you know that my interest in this is not just professional: it is personal.  A very close member of my immediate family has autism and I’ve learnt as a result of the experience of a parent about what it can be like for people with neuro-divergent conditions to navigate a world that frankly too often fails to understand their needs.

But it is something that I saw in my professional life, at the criminal bar, and as a part time judge I presided over cases involving people with life-long conditions.  I represented clients with neuro-divergent conditions.  I would very often make sure that we obtained the necessary reports that for the very first time diagnosed a particular condition that had not been properly examined before. I have seen at first hand the issues that they can face.  I was constantly frustrated by the fact that it had taken a criminal process for a proper clinical diagnosis to take place.  That happened all too often.  It is still happening all too often.  So here I am with this wonderful opportunity to do something about it. And that is why I am determined to ensure that the system is better informed, that it treats all people fairly. I am absolutely adamant that for people with neuro-divergent conditions, that doesn’t mean treating them the same as everyone else, which can in itself be the cause of many problems for those who come into contact with the criminal justice system.  I think that neuro-divergent people are over-represented in the system precisely because they can too often struggle to engage with the criminal justice process in perhaps a way that people with a neuro-typical condition can.

It doesn’t need to be this way.  And we know that, by making even the smallest adjustments that allow for those characteristics to be accommodated, we can give people with neuro-divergent conditions a much better chance to turn their lives around.  And in turn that means bringing down the rates of crime. So I commissioned the independent call for evidence to help us to understand how people with neuro-divergent conditions are treated within the system now, and the ways in which we can do better in the future.  One of my aims is for this evidence to form the basis of a training toolkit for front line justice staff, so that they understand the issues facing neuro-divergent people and importantly how to address them.  That call for evidence was led by the independent inspectors, Justin Russell for probation and Charlie Taylor for prisons.  The evidence period has now closed and the submissions are currently being reviewed, and my aim is to publish a full report in the summer. I want to then say much more about how we are going to respond to the evidence that we have received, when the report is available. 

Whilst I am with you, I just want to say something, briefly, about the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which is of course in many ways the legislative reflection of the proposals I set out in parts of the Sentencing White Paper.  What I believe the Home Secretary and I are managing to do with this bill is to strike a balance, between rigorous punishments for the worst and most dangerous offenders and a more targeted approach to lower-level offending that we know can bring down rates of crime.  At one end of the scale, we are ending automatic release from prison at the half way point for the more serious and violent offenders, and increasing maximum penalties in certain cases where the courts have frankly struggled with regard to an appropriate sentence.  But as I said, the more targeted approach involving effective community sentences that address the underlying drivers of offending, and that giving willing and determined offenders a fair shot at rehabilitation are very much part of the approach that I am taking. The Bill was given its second reading in March.  As this session of Parliament is about to come to an end, the House of Commons has agreed that the Bill will be carried over to the next session, ahead of its introduction into the Lords.  Given the size of the Bill, I think it is right to allow enough time for colleagues to consider the detail before the line-by-line scrutiny begins, which will happen, as I expect it, next month.  I look forward to working with colleagues on all sides of the House to pass a Bill that is truly balanced, which will work to achieve the agenda that I have already set out.

I will stop there.  I understand that questions are coming in, and I very much hope that I will, to the best of my ability, answer the questions that you may want to put to me’.

Paul Maynard MP thanked the Lord Chancellor for his presentation.  He said some interesting questions had been appearing on screen, and he invited Mark Day to handle them.

Mark Day said he would read out two or three questions at a time. The first questioner, John Bache, asked whether there was any intention of either-way cases in the crown court being heard by a judge sitting with two magistrates, to help reduce the backlog.  The second questioner, Francesca Cooney asked if the minister could add any details of plans for the prison education service, particularly in respect of support for those with additional learning needs.

The Lord Chancellor said, in response to the second question, that the manifesto commitment on the prison education service was designed to improve the commissioning process.  He hoped to see more targeted commissioning of the type of courses that allowed people to learn in the first place, to understand the obstacles to learning.  Many prisoners had not succeeded at school, because their conditions had not been understood, diagnosed or dealt with. It was vital to unblock that access to learning for many who were struggling. There would be more to say in the coming months.

On the question of ‘judge and two’, he said that this idea had been mooted last year, in discussions about how to manage caseloads in the crown court.  Since then, the courts service had been able to supply more information about both case loads and possible remedies.  He was happy to say that the court estate had been scaled up, both through approved safety measures and by the expansion of the estate by the creation of around 60 so-called ‘Nightingale courtrooms’.  Many of those dealt with criminal cases and others freed up existing courtrooms to do criminal work. So on any given day there were more than 300 courtrooms ready for jury trials – probably a better situation than pre-Covid. However the biggest obstacle to getting through the work remained social distancing. A change to those rules would be the single biggest factor in allowing the courts to do more.  The number of sitting days agreed annually with the Lord Chief Justice would be no barrier to the courts ramping up the number of cases heard, and it was his aim to achieve the maximum number of sitting days possible in the coming year.  Certain other measures were worth looking at, but many measures would require primary legislation.  He thought there were certain problems to the judge and two magistrates option, and he had also placed great reliance on the jury system, for many years.  He would keep the group updated with progress in the coming months.

Mark Day asked a question from Ben Leapman about the Prison Service’s review to see what lessons could be learned from Covid. Would this mean the end of association, more time in cell for prisoners, and would prisoners be included in the consultation.  Juliet Lyon welcomed the Lord Chancellor’s emphasis on neuro-diversity, however the Prison Service remained beleaguered, and an agreement was yet to be reached on whole-institution vaccination. She asked when an improved response to people with particular needs could be expected.

The Lord Chancellor thanked both for their questions.  As regards regimes, it was important to digest and reflect on what had happened over the past yearNo-one could think that locking prisoners up for 23 hours a day was desirable.  However it was important to understand the individual impacts on prisoners of changes to the regime. For some, association was an important part of the day, while others found it very difficult. It was important the reviewers remained open-minded, and he would expect the viewpoint of prisoners to be represented.  There were many different people in prison, and it was worth looking again at all options, to see whether there were new things that could be done.  It had been important in preventing disorder to ensure prisoners in-cell had enough to do, and could communicate with their families and other key support networks. That led to virtual visits on Boxing Day, for example.

As regards vaccination, the most vulnerable cohort of prisoners had had their first jabs, in line with the community. That had minimised the risk of hospitalisation and death, and tens of thousands of prisoners and staff had now been vaccinated.  More and more prisons were heading to an easier regime, enabling visits.  There had been a great communication effort to explain to prisoners what was happening and why.  Staff had worked extraordinarily hard, and should be thanked for what they had done.

Mark Day asked, on behalf of Jenny Earle, whether the minister could comment on the findings of the report from the Disability Trust last year on the number of women in HMP Drake Hall affected by  brain injury as a result of domestic abuse, and whether any measures were in place to ensure such women did not end up in prison and, if they did, to recognise these injuries and provide support.  Lord Carlile asked whether the review on neuro-diversity would include ensuring that victims of sexual abuse had the prospect of the offence being prosecuted. The case of Killick seemed more of a memory than a sign of improvement in this area.

The Lord Chancellor responded that the neuro-diversity review concerned people who had been convicted of offences and were already in the system.  There was a wider question about how the criminal justice system dealt with complainants and witnesses. There had been progress since the days when counsel assumed that credibility would be the first thing to look at, where neuro-diverse witnesses and defendants were concerned. There was now a more user-friendly victims’ code, but more needed to be done and there would be a consultation on a victims’ law in the summer.  That would be a good moment for the issues raised by Lord Carlile to be examined, and he would like to return to them.  As regards the Drake Hall question, the female offenders’ strategy launched in 2018 was a trauma-informed strategy, recognising that women may well have been the victims of abuse.  He was alive to the issues around acquired brain injury, resulting in neuro-diversity. He aimed to improve the female estate, and the initiative launching in Wales, with a smaller residential secure centre, was the way he wanted to develop things.  The reason he was adding 500 extra places was to provide more modern accommodation for women, better adjusted to the needs of those who had to be incarcerated.

He had noted a message from Peter Dawson about the Sage minutes.  He had totally disagreed with the UCL analysis of prisons, which he thought was based on misconceptions. He accepted that in an enclosed environment there was a heightened risk, and tragically some people had died, but he considered that the measures taken had been highly effective in containing the disease. 

He also noted a message from Joanna Buckard about foetal alcohol syndrome, in which he was very interested, and recommended that she looked at Andrea Leadsom’s work on early years’ development.

Paul Maynard MP closed the meeting by thanking the Lord Chancellor for exceeding his allotted time to answer all the questions that had been posed.  He also thanked all participants very much for attending, and looked forward to future meetings of the group.