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Secretary of State questioned on effects of Covid on prisons and courts

30 November 2020

The House of Commons Justice Committee examines how the Covid-19 pandemic has impacted the justice system. The Secretary of State for Justice will be asked, among other questions, why cases of the virus in prisons more than doubled between September and October.


Tuesday 1 December 2020, virtual meeting

At 2.30pm

  • Rt Hon Robert Buckland MP, Secretary of State for Justice
  • Dr Jo Farrar, Chief Executive of the Prison and Probation Service
  • Kevin Sadler, interim Chief Executive Officer of the Courts and Tribunal Service

The number of prisoners, or children in youth custody institutions, testing positive for Covid-19 increased by over 800 between September and October 2020.

This more than doubled the total number of positive cases to over 1500. The increase for October is very large indeed compared with previous months – the figure rose by just 80 in September and 20 in August.

A mass testing programme of all prisoners in 28 prisons – covering about a fifth of the prison population – began in July.

In light of these figures, the Secretary of State will be asked if enough is being done to reduce transmission in prisons and youth offender institutions.

The authorities have taken a number of measures to mitigate the effects of the pandemic including, according to the annual report of the Inspectorate of Prisons, a regime under which “almost all prisoners were locked up for over 23 hours a day” in their cells.

These measures have reduced the level of violence in prisons. The total of assault incidents (between prisoners and involving staff) was down almost 20% in the twelve months to June 2020, to 27,742 assaults.

This reduction in violence may, however, have come at a price. In the twelve months to June 2020 there were over 60,000 incidents of self- harming across the prison and youth offender estate, the highest recorded figure for such incidents.

This increase was driven entirely by increased self-harming in female establishments – there was actually a small decrease in such incidents among males.

One women’s prison recorded 375 incidents in a single month. Volunteer prison visitors from the Independent Monitoring Boards have expressed “deep disquiet” about rising self-harm.

The lessons to be learnt from the reduction in violence and the increase in self-harming will be the subject of questioning to the Secretary of State and his officials.

They are also likely to be asked about how the probation service is faring after most face-to-face supervision was suspended as the lockdown began in March 2020. All unpaid work that people have been sentenced to carry out has also been suspended.

The Chief Inspector of Probation told the Committee in an earlier evidence session that there was “a huge backlog” of unpaid work that will still need to be carried out.

The inspectorate also reported in its review of the post-lockdown probation regime that there had been a reduction in support in the areas of mental health and drug and alcohol treatments. Inspectors reported that some of their most vulnerable clients had experienced a deterioration in their emotional wellbeing.

The Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown have contributed to a growing backlog of court cases as social distancing and other requirements have reduced court capacity.

In mid-November, the Chair of the Justice Committee, Sir Bob Neill, wrote to the government to draw attention to the opinion of the most senior judge in England and Wales, the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Burnett of Maldon.

Lord Burnett had told the Committee, Sir Bob’s letter said, that the justice system “has not had any money spent on it for decades and has technology and data systems that are antiquated to the point of uselessness”.

At their evidence session on December 1, members of the Justice Committee will ask whether the backlog of cases and the state of the ‘antiquated technology’ has been addressed.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer announced increases in funding for the justice system in his spending review on November 25. The Bar Council, representing barristers, and the Law Society, made up of solicitors, have both welcomed the increases but said more resources are still required.

Further information

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