What PCCs think of the criminal justice system – and their ability to hold agencies to account

Friday 23rd July

Ellie Covell, Head of Strategy (Performance)



Our Head of Strategy (Performance), Ellie Covell, outlines the five key findings of a survey and a series of interviews with Police and Crime Commissioners – revealing what they really think of the criminal justice system and their role within it.

The policing of protests, allegations of institutional failings, controversial police legislation and a new performance framework - they’re all issues that have shone a powerful spotlight on police accountability this year. But there’s another area, less discussed perhaps, which is equally important.


It’s the role played by Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) in holding to account parts of the criminal justice system (CJS). In fact, it’s crucial in determining whether or not PCCs are able to fulfil one of their core functions - cutting crime. The police can catch as many criminals as they want, but without a functioning court system, probation and prison service, offenders won’t be brought to justice or rehabilitated and victims will continue to be let down.


Full disclosure: this is a subject close to our heart at Crest. We have published several reports detailing the problems facing the CJS, problems made worse by the pandemic, and have repeatedly argued that PCCs ought to be given more powers to join up justice services locally and hold agencies to account.


We can reveal the outcome of a survey of PCCs we conducted before the elections in May which examines their perceptions of working with other parts of the criminal justice system and central government. We also carried out 9 in-depth interviews with PCCs [1]. Here are the five main points:


PCCs do not believe that the ‘and crime’ part of their role is fully understood

Delivering on the 'and crime' part of their role was consistently identified as a priority by PCCs. They said it allows them to act on local priorities by commissioning services tailored to the needs of communities and creates a space for them to move beyond the realm of policing, addressing the root causes of crime, rather than just the symptoms. Many saw it as the key to their ability to build local partnerships.


However, just over two thirds (68 per cent) of PCCs who responded to our survey did not think the 'and crime' part of their role was well understood by the public. Participants felt this was largely because the Home Office hadn’t defined the role clearly enough. Just as concerning, only 37 per cent said they agreed with the statement “criminal justice partners understood the ‘and crime’ part of the role well”, with 42 per cent neutral and 21 per cent disagreeing.

PCCs want greater powers to influence and shape the criminal justice system, with access to performance data a particular priority


Many PCCs spoke positively about the progress they had made in tackling wider CJS issues over the previous five years. They often emphasised the importance of building strong personal relationships, either individually or via the local criminal justice board.


However, it is clear that a majority of PCCs believe that if they are making progress, it is in spite of, rather than because of, the existing system. One of the most striking findings is that 0 respondents agreed that PCCs “have sufficient power and responsibilities to drive change in the CJS”, with a staggering 84 per cent disagreeing.

The inability to access timely performance data was a major theme. Over half (63 per cent) of PCCs who responded said they did not have access to the data they needed to fulfil their core tasks. (Our work with PCCs’ offices and local criminal justice boards certainly backs this up - it is a common complaint that justice agencies do not share data in ways that make meaningful analysis impossible). Many talked about the lengthy process of information agreements before you can even begin to access data. In particular, many PCCs felt they lacked a holistic picture of the victim’s journey through the different elements of the CJS.


The whole journey from all the handover points is vital, so we can drill down and actually start tackling the problem rather than just putting our head in our hands” - Sue Mountstevens, former PCC for Avon and Somerset

PCCs’ ability to influence the justice system will clearly be a major theme of the second stage of the Home Office’s review into the role of PCCs. The policy case for greater justice devolution - as we have argued - is compelling. Joining up the system locally, whether through pooled budgets or joint commissioning, enables services to be built around the needs of those who use the services, rather than Whitehall silos, driving greater efficiencies. At the very least, it seems there is an opportunity for government to nudge the system in a more collaborative direction when it comes to sharing performance data: something that is still piecemeal and frustratingly slow in lots of areas.


PCCs see the Courts Service as a barrier to change, rather than a partner in reform

Every PCC spoken to as part of this research raised Her Majesty’s Courts Service (HMCTS) as a source of significant concern. In particular, PCCs expressed frustration at HMCTS’s inability (or unwillingness?) to participate in joint decision-making structures. They also pointed to a general lack of accountability to local communities, rather than to Whitehall. There was a sense that local innovation, such as the use of video-enabled court hearings in Sussex or virtual courts in North Yorkshire, had occurred in spite of, not because of, the efforts of HMCTS.


For the most part, PCCs understand the significance of ‘judicial independence’, acknowledging, for example, that it would be inappropriate to involve themselves in sentencing. However, there was a sense that this principle had come to be used as a figleaf to prevent any external scrutiny at all, even over areas largely involving the administration of the courts, such as the use of technology and listing cases. Many claimed that HMCTS is not held accountable by anyone, which allows the organisation to hide - especially when it comes to sharing data about its performance.


They (judges) don’t want change. Any idea of you interfering is deemed political, even though it is not, it's just trying to be effective and efficient” - Julia Mulligan, former PCC for North Yorkshire

Unsurprisingly, the results of our survey illustrate that of all the criminal justice agencies that PCCs work with, the relationship with HMCTS is weakest, with 53 per cent saying the level of cooperation and buy-in they receive is either ‘weak’ or very ‘weak’. That compares to 84 percent saying they had ‘good’ or ‘very good’ cooperation from the Crown Prosecution Service and 90 per cent saying the same about probation.



The breakdown of confidence between PCCs and HMCTS has gone under the radar for too long and must now be considered a priority for the government, particularly because of the backlog of cases awaiting trial. It is difficult to see how Ministers can achieve reform of the CJS when two of its principal protagonists are at logger-heads over matters of principle as well as practice.


Covid has strengthened the case for change

A majority of PCCs told us the pandemic had made the case for reform more urgent. Of those who responded, 89 per cent felt Covid had strengthened the case for greater PCC oversight of the courts - significantly higher than for any other criminal justice agency (the next biggest was 68 per cent who felt it had strengthened the case for oversight of the CPS).


Many PCCs told us the growing backlog in the courts - exacerbated during the early months of the pandemic when courts stopped sitting - was a particular cause for concern. We were told about lost trials that had run out of time and the growing number of victims and witnesses who had become disengaged, which was likely to make it harder to achieve successful prosecutions. PCCs were (understandably) concerned about the impact this would have on confidence not just in the courts but in the justice system overall. On the other hand, some PCCs also felt that Covid had given them more license than they might otherwise have had to push HMCTS on issues, such as the backlog, they were facing before, but which had been magnified by the pandemic.


When they came to the table they were very engaged...it was probably the most engaged I’ve ever seen HMCTS. But the point is that it took 14 weeks to get them to the table”. - Martyn Underhill, former PCC for Dorset

Clearly, dealing with the impact of the pandemic on public services will be a significant priority for the government over the coming months. The Treasury has already made £105.2m available to support courts recovery in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. However, our survey suggests PCCs believe the more pressing priority is to ensure the pandemic is used as a springboard for reform, unlocking structural barriers to better joined-up working across the CJS.


Above all, PCCs want greater clarity from central government

PCCs believe there is a vacuum at the heart of government around how they should fulfil their role; they say it has hampered their ability to hold local partners to account. A number of PCCs told us they have tried to use ‘soft’ convening power to bring local agencies together, for example, by chairing local criminal justice boards. The aim of the boards is to make the various parts of the CJS work more smoothly and effectively, improve services for victims and witnesses and reduce re-offending. However, many PCCs felt they lack a legitimate voice when it comes to questioning local agencies’ performance which restricts their ability to drive reform.


It is therefore no surprise PCCs are divided over their relationship with central government departments. Just over half of PCCs (56 per cent) agreed their relationship with the Home Office was “fundamentally strong, with a shared understanding of what we are trying to achieve”, compared to 44 per cent who disagreed. Worryingly, only just over a quarter (28 per cent) said their relationship with the Ministry of Justice was “fundamentally strong”; 72 per cent of PCCs in the survey said it was not.


Underlying these findings was also an anxiety, shared by a number of PCCs, that the government is preparing the ground for a consolidation of power at the centre, at the expense of local areas.


We’ve used the crisis to argue that if you devolved decision making and resources to a more local level, you’d be able to achieve a lot more. Those discussions are ‘live’ at the moment, but we’re going to need to keep it ‘live’. I see it as a challenge, but an opportunity as well.." - Paddy Tipping, former PCC for Nottinghamshire

In conclusion...

While PCCs voiced many frustrations, it would be wrong to paint a picture of blanket pessimism. A number of PCCs were positive about the progress they have been able to make locally - even within existing rules - and were clear about their own role in making the case for change locally. When asked if they had any advice to pass on to their successors, a number of PCCs talked about the importance of quantifying the benefits of local devolution (and integration) of services as well as robust analysis of local performance data - a major focus of Crest’s work with PCCs’ offices over the last eight years. With the Home Office soon to unveil proposals for reform, it’s vital that these issues - performance monitoring, collaborative working and accountability are resolved, once and for all.



Footnotes

1. A number of those surveyed and interviewed either did not stand for re-election or were not successful in being re-elected - so the results are not necessarily reflective of the current crop of PCCs


2. Youth Offending Services


3. Community Safety Partnerships


4. Youth Offending Services


5. Community Safety Partnerships

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