The justice system may be unable to cope with the consequences of Boris Johnson’s pledge to hire 20,000 extra police officers, MPs have warned.
The Public Accounts Committee said civil servants could not predict the full impact of the uplift, which is expected to lead to more prosecutions and prison sentences.
“Given the operational and financial pressure that court, prison and probation services are already under, it is far from certain the Ministry of Justice will have the capacity and capability to cope with a significant rise in demand,” its report concluded.
“The government has a track record of changing one element of a system without fully recognising the consequences for the rest of the system, or across other government departments.”
Mr Johnson has made justice reforms a cornerstone of his policies heading into December’s general election, although experts have warned that they will not undo almost a decade of austerity.
A recent inspection by the policing watchdog found that the performance of forces across the country was still falling, with prosecutions plummeting and the number of court trials at a record low.
The recruitment of 20,000 extra officers would not cover all those lost since 2010 and the head of the National Police Chiefs’ Council has said up to half a million applicants may be needed to meet the target.
The Public Accounts Committee said the planned increase, combined with Conservative pledges to lengthen prison sentences for some crimes, will increase the number of people being prosecuted, going to court, being jailed and being supervised by probation services.
MPs said the changes could create a huge spike in demand but that the Ministry of Justice was “still quantifying the potential scale of the change” because it depends on how the extra officers are deployed.
Officials told the committee that their greatest concern was a significant increase in the prison population, amid violence, self-harm, overcrowding and dire conditions in many jails.
Mr Johnson has promised to create 10,000 new prison places by 2023 and pledged new security funding but MPs said there was also concern about the capacity of the probation services to cope with increased demand.
“Sustained cuts to the Ministry of Justice’s funding have put services under strain,” the report said. “While the ministry received a 4.9-per-cent increase in the 2019-20 spending round, it is not clear if this will be enough to match new demands.”
It also questioned the capacity of crown and magistrates’ court to handle an increase caseload, amid a backlog of criminal cases, limited sitting days and maintenance problems.
A separate report published by the Lord Chief Justice on Tuesday raised concern about “poor conditions” in ageing court buildings.
Lord Burnett said pressure was rising “against the reality of extremely tight resources”, adding: “It is a matter of regret that resources have not been made available by government to begin to tackle the backlog of repairs and maintenance needed in the court estate.”
A total of 127 courts have been closed since 2015 and 77 more are set for the axe, despite concerns over the impact on access for people on low incomes, with disabilities and from rural areas.
“These courts were closed before services were moved online, meaning that many people are having to travel further to attend court,” the Public Accounts Committee said.
“HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) risks undermining public confidence in the fairness of the justice system by proceeding with its reforms without sufficiently demonstrating it understands the impact on justice outcomes or people.”
A £1.2bn programme to modernise courts by digitising services, moving cases online and introducing virtual hearings was originally due to be finished next year but has been extended to 2023.
MPs said the delay was partly because new laws needed to effect the changes have not been passed because of restrictions on parliamentary time caused by Mr Johnson’s prorogation and general elections.
The committee said it was “not convinced” that the current deadline for reforms could be met, or that they are delivering the improvements promised.
It found that although £133m has so far been saved from cuts to administrative, judicial and property costs, the government cannot prove a link between the money and its reforms.
MPs demanded to see a plan to maintain justice services in the face of rising demand within six months.
Meg Hillier, chair of the Public Accounts Committee, said: “Proposed increases in police numbers and changes to sentencing could lead to a huge spike in demand as more people are prosecuted, affecting justice services already under considerable strain.
“HMCTS must ensure that further reforms, particularly those that include closing more courts do not mean citizens lose access to justice which would undermine public confidence in the fairness of the justice system.”
A spokesperson for HMCTS said it would consider the report's findings and respond fully in due course, adding: “We have been working with partners to forecast the impact 20,000 extra police officers will have across the criminal justice system and are confident our courts will be able to manage the increased demand."
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