I meet Lucy Frazer QC MP, Minister of State at the Ministry of Justice (MOJ), as the five-week Prorogation begins. It has been a tumultuous week for Parliament. The European Union (Withdrawal) (No. 2) Act 2019, which prevents the government from taking us out of the EU without the consent of the House of Commons to a deal or to no deal, had just become law. Lucy had voted against it. There is, however, no sense of crisis in her office. Friendly and relaxed, she is getting on with her job. Due to the various reshuffles in 2019, she has moved within a few months from being Parliamentary Undersecretary of State at MOJ to being Solicitor General this summer to her present position. She generously deals with my questions about the challenging areas which are within her remit, in particular prisons and probation, although she has only been responsible for them for just over a month. They are, though, live issues and the Prime Minister has pronounced on some of them already.

Lucy was elected for the safe seat of South East Cambridgeshire in May 2015 after nearly 20 years at the commercial Bar. She took silk in 2013. Her ministerial jobs, however, have been concerned with the criminal justice system. So how does she get briefed about matters she may not have previously encountered in her practice but where she now has to set policy?

‘I have a number of outstanding civil servants’; ‘I’ve been very impressed with the job of the Civil Service who are fully aware of all things relating to the brief.’ As a barrister, ‘I like reading material, I often request the report itself, and take home a lot of background reading.’ When previously dealing with legal aid, she had arranged a number of round table meetings with those who had first hand knowledge of it.

Her work as a Minister and indeed as an MP continues regardless of Parliamentary sittings. This morning she has met with the Chair and Chief Executive of the Parole Board. She later mentions that the review set up in March 2019 to consider the Parole Board’s functions will be reporting very soon. In the afternoon she has a meeting with constituents about the environment and another with a constituent about an issue personal to them. The next day she is due to visit HMP Send, a prison for women.

I point out that in November 2016 the government promised to provide 10,000 new prison places at a cost of £1.3 billion. In August 2019 the Prime Minister promised 10,000 new prison places at a cost of £2.5 billion. How do these relate to one another? The first tranche of 10,000 in fact will add up to about 3,500. ‘We’re progressing with that’; new prisons of course do not appear overnight but those at Wellingborough and Glen Parva are in the pipeline. The second promise of 10,000 will be in addition to that and the cost reflects inflation. ‘We’re making a massive investment.’

"How can prisoners be prepared for life [back] in the community? ‘We acknowledge that this is a very challenging area. There is always more we can do."

Meanwhile, there is the issue of the condition of the existing prisons. The government’s White Paper in November 2016 stated, ‘we are embarking on the most far reaching prison reforms for a generation,’ but parts of the 2018-19 report of HM Chief Inspector of Prisons make for uncomfortable reading: in prisons such as Exeter, Birmingham and Bedford there were very high levels of vulnerability, self harm and suicide, and squalid conditions. ‘Too many’ prisoners overall, it says, are held in prisons that are unsafe – levels of violence had increased in more than half the prisons inspected and 22 out of 28 were judged to be poor or not sufficiently good in terms of safety. There were not enough places providing meaningful and purposeful activity. How could those prisoners be prepared for life in the community so that they were less likely to offend? How indeed could this still be going on?

‘We acknowledge that this is a very challenging area,’ Lucy says, ‘there is always more we can do.’ The government is investing in prison safety. £100 million had been announced for security measures such as body scanners, mobile phone technology and intelligence operations in terms of organised crime. There were improvements: the key worker scheme was ‘paying huge dividends’, and there were 4,700 more staff [which I pointed out went towards restoring the pre-austerity staffing levels] which was a ‘significant step’ and was making a difference.

Eventually the Probation Service needs to deal with those who are released. Transforming Rehabilitation was MOJ’s scheme announced in 2013 which outsourced management of low and medium risk offenders to private suppliers. In March 2019 the National Audit Office published a report stating that the Ministry ‘had set itself up to fail’ in how it approached this, and that it had achieved ‘poor value for money for the taxpayer’. MOJ ended contracts with the suppliers 14 months early. On 16 May 2019, a new model for probation was unveiled, to bring all offender management under the National Probation Service, which had been dealing with high risk offenders. The MOJ announcement was positive about what had happened; there were 40,000 additional offenders being supervised every year and ‘fresh ideas and innovative new rehabilitative services from private and voluntary providers’ had been introduced. Indeed, £280 million a year will still be provided for ‘probation interventions’ from the private and voluntary sectors.

Lucy does not accept my suggestion that past failure had been the reason for the new model announced in May. ‘We are bringing the National Probation Service under management because we think it will be a useful way of managing Transforming Rehabilitation. We recognise the coordinated approach with the National Probation Service.’ As for the continued involvement of the private sector, there were ‘fantastic operations that are going on locally and regionally’ and ‘we want to ensure third sector involvement continues’.

Related to both prison and probation is the issue of the length of sentences. On 12 August, and following the Prime Minister’s wish to change the law to stop ‘mid-sentence releases’, the Secretary of State for Justice announced a sentencing review. Its focus is on whether violent and sexual offenders are serving long-enough sentences and whether legislation is needed to lock criminals up for longer by not letting them out automatically part-way through a sentence – and whether they were ‘being released without a proper deterrent to stop their offending’.

I point out to Lucy that if a judge wanted a defendant to serve, say, two years, he sentenced him to four years, with the rest on licence. ‘Do the public know that?’ she replied. ‘The public needs to have confidence in the criminal justice system,’ she said. She cited a constituent, whose daughter had been the victim of crime, ‘and she wanted to get comfort that the offender was getting appropriate treatment’.

Understandably Lucy does not want to be drawn further on the sentencing review before its publication, and which is not in her portfolio. As its remit is dangerous and prolific offenders, I cite, at the other end of the spectrum, what the now Secretary of State said in June, that ‘it is clear short prison sentences simply aren’t working’ and that therefore there was a case to ‘abolish or further restrict the use of sentences of six months or less with some exceptions’. Lucy says, ‘What we need to ensure is that where people may be better served by community orders that those are realistic options on offer to magistrates, that they are effective and has public confidence and can turn people’s lives around’.

At the end I stray into the question of what had been happening in Westminster and ask what she thinks of the future for parliamentary democracy. ‘I think we’re in challenging times but parliamentary democracy is very important. A very important part of our system.’

My final question is the only personal one: what does the Minister do on a Sunday? ‘There are no days off,’ she smiles. 

CV: Key facts

Education: Lucy was born in Yorkshire and educated at Leeds Girls’ High School and Newnham College, Cambridge, where she was elected President of the Cambridge Union.

Practice: Prior to becoming an MP, Lucy practised as a barrister in insolvency and commercial law at South Square Chambers for 17 years and was appointed as Queen’s Counsel in 2013.

Parliament: Lucy was first elected to be the Member of Parliament for South East Cambridgeshire in May 2015.

Key roles: She was appointed Solicitor General in May 2019 and Minister of State at the Ministry of Justice in July 2019. Her previous roles include Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Ministry of Justice (January 2018-May 2019) and Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice as well as the Paymaster General and Minister to the Cabinet Office. Lucy has also served on the Education Select Committee.

David Wurtzel practised at the criminal Bar for 27 years and is a door tenant at 18 Red Lion Court. Prior to his retirement, he was a consultant in the CPD department at City Law School and consultant editor of Counsel. David is a member of the Counsel Editorial Board.