Robert Buckland is Secretary of State for Justice, Lord Chancellor, and MP for South Swindon.
As I pound the pavements of Swindon, Birmingham and Hartlepool with fellow Conservatives, one of the key messages I hear from people is the burning need for politicians to act on their priorities. Having been through the worst peacetime crisis in living memory, communities and families up and down our country want to share in the recovery from Covid, get those jabs as part of our world-beating vaccination programme – and get on with their lives.
The people’s priorities are our priorities, which is why, from the day that Boris Johnson became Prime Minister and asked me to be his Justice Secretary and Lord Chancellor, we have relentlessly focused on delivering on our justice commitments, as we roll out our pledge to put 20,000 more police officers in place. After over 20 years of direct working experience in the system as a lawyer and part-time judge, I know what has to be done in order to help rebuild public confidence.
Immediately after taking office, we took swift action to ramp up investment in prison building, with over £2.5 billion committed to build an additional 10,000 places, now increased to over £4 billion in the latest Spending Review.
We have installed dozens of new scanners in our prisons, to help combat smuggling and crime. I took decisive steps to end automatic half-way release from prison for serious violent and sexual offenders serving sentences of more than seven years, and increased the range of offences that can be referred to the Court of Appeal for being unacceptably low.
Covid brought unprecedented challenges to the justice system, but with hard work and swift decision-making, we controlled the disease in our prisons, supported our dedicated prison staff and ensured that there was no disorder or dysfunction on the estate. We kept the courts running throughout each lockdown, and were the first in the western world to resume jury trials.
We have used remote technology to run tens of thousands of hearings every week, and have created sixty new Nightingale courtrooms to help deal with the caseload. We have made our courts safer, with investment in perspex and other measures. We have recruited over 1600 extra staff to ensure that the courts run as smoothly as possible.
This is yielding results: the caseload in the Magistrates Courts is being steadily reduced, and in the Crown Court we are now seeing more cases dealt with per week than being received. In the coming year, there will be no limit as to the days the Crown Court can sit, making it clear that our priority is to get cases done so that victims and witnesses aren’t kept waiting. The court recovery plans that I approved last year are bearing fruit, and now we plan to make permanent some of the changes brought about Covid, as we build back stronger.
We did not let the Covid crisis get in the way of the work we are doing to reform justice and to carry out our manifesto pledges. We are reforming probation, with a new national probation service being launched in June, 1000 extra probation officers and a new electronic sobriety tagging programme that is being rolled out across the country.
We have plans to revitalise unpaid work schemes, with an emphasis on visibility and real benefit to local communities. Investment in mental health treatment is being increased, so that alternatives to custody are robust and more likely to work.
During the past year, we passed vital pieces of legislation that mark the beginning of our reforms. The new Sentencing Code makes the law clearer and easier to use, reducing the number of errors and appeals. Helen’s Law is part of our reform of the Parole Board, making it mandatory for the Board to take into account when considering an application for release the applicant’s failure to tell the authorities the whereabouts of their murder victim or the identities of sexually abused victims.
We passed emergency anti-terrorism legislation in the wake of the Fishmongers Hall and Streatham atrocities in order to end automatic early release for a range of terror offences and in the new Counter Terrorism Act, we have lengthened maximum sentences for serious terror offences, created longer licence supervision periods for these offenders and reformed the TPIM (Terrorist Prevention and Investigation Measures) regime to ensure that we are doing all we can to prevent these appalling crimes from happening in the first place.
After I introduced the Domestic Abuse Bill into the Commons just after the general election jointly with the Home Secretary, it has now become law. Yet again, it is the Conservatives who are leading on the protection of the victims of abuse in the home. Those who perpetrate this abuse will no longer be able to cross-examine their victims in person in our civil and family courts, and new Domestic Abuse Prevention Orders will be available to help safeguard more families from this harm.
We have also moved to clarify the law on non-fatal strangulation, so-called “rough sex” defences, revenge pornography and coercive control offences. Conservatives have never hesitated to take decisive action on crime, and our action on domestic abuse is another reflection of this determination.
The new Police Crime Sentencing and Courts Bill, which Labour are opposing at every step, is the next stage in our reforms. We will end automatic halfway release for even more serious violent and sexual offenders, increase the maximum sentence for causing death by dangerous driving from fourteen years to life imprisonment, toughen minimum sentences for house burglary, drug trafficking and knife crime and impose whole life orders for those who commit the premeditated murder of a child. We will increase the maximum that can be imposed by way of curfew hours to further strengthen community sentences too.
Victims of crime deserve a voice, which is why I have introduced a new, clearer and simpler Victims Code which enshrines the need for proper communication and support from the police, prosecution and other agencies. We are going to consult this year on a new Victims Law to further strengthen these important rights.
As we go to the polls to elect 43 Police and Crime Commissioners in England and Wales, the message is clear: elect a Conservative PCC who will work with a Conservative Government that is investing in criminal justice and creating a new framework that will deliver on the people’s priorities.