‘Justice is not for sale’ was the message at this Speak Up for Justice fringe meeting at Labour Party Conference on 22 September. Speakers included Sadiq Khan MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Justice and Shadow Lord Chancellor; Ian Lawrence, General Secretary, Napo; Matt Foot, solicitor and Co-founder, Justice Alliance; Paul Nowak, Assistant General Secretary, TUC; and the meeting was chaired by Sharon Holder, National Officer, GMB.
“Chris Grayling is chipping away at the ability of the public to hold power to account”, Sadiq Khan told the audience. “He probably thinks ‘‘Rule of Law’ is a boy band.”
“There have been changes to judicial review, changes to Freedom of Information, and talk about scrapping the Human Rights Act and withdrawing from the European Convention on Human Rights. Privatised public services aren’t covered by Freedom of Information.” Khan said.
“No democracy should be worried about the ability of citizens to hold power to account.” he added
“We have a prisons’ crisis. There have been more suicides, more assaults on prisoners and staff, and more riots. 6000 jobs have been cut in the prison service, and prisoners are being locked up for longer. What chance do they have of being rehabilitated?”
“The probation service is in meltdown” Khan said. “Before Grayling’s reforms, the probation service had won awards. Now offenders are being supervised by untested companies motivated by profit.”
Sadiq said that he had asked Secretary of State for Justice, Chris Grayling, to include ‘break clauses’ in contracts with Community Rehabilitation Companies – so that the government could end contracts if private companies were failing to deliver. Grayling refused.
Worse still, clauses have been written into contracts that guarantee bidders their expected profits over the 10-year contract – if they are cancelled after the May election. “Grayling is rushing to sign the contracts.”
“To clear up any confusion” said Khan. “I oppose cuts being implemented under the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act, and cuts to criminal legal aid.” He concluded by saying that Labour is committed to standing up for justice for all and for due process, and believes everyone should be treated equally.
“The probation service is in utter chaos” Ian Lawrence told the audience. The government’s Transforming Rehabilitation Programme, which aims to privatise 70% of the probation
services is risking public safety. Lawrence cited the case of a perpetrator of domestic violence who had been out for one week before an appointment was made for him to meet a probation officer. The consequences were that he murdered is ex-partner. Grayling, Secretary of State for Justice, has blood on his hands, said Lawrence.
Despite Freedom of Information requests, the government has refused to reveal the list of bidders wanting to buy the Community Rehabilitation Companies set up to supervise low and high risk offenders. The 10- year contracts are worth around £8bn, and yet the government is refusing to disclose information, Lawrence said.
Since implementation of the reforms, probation staff have faced daily challenges such as being unable to access offender records, ongoing IT problems, unnecessary paper work and increased workloads – 55% of staff surveyed are actively looking for a new job.
“Probation services are being put in the hands of untrained and unskilled amateurs” under the government’s reforms.
“We need a new model for managing offenders sentenced to under 12 months and we need to break the cycle of repeat reoffending” stated Lawrence. Over the coming months Napo will be setting this out – and it will include working in partnership with local agencies.
“We need a new deal from Labour. We need investment in our justice services and we need value for money for taxpayers.”
Matt Foot illustrated how legal aid is being denied to those in need, in the wake of Grayling’s reforms. He cited the case of a family with a history of domestic violence, where the child had been snatched after the family were unable to access legal aid, and another case where a woman was denied legal aid because she could not prove a previous history of domestic abuse. These cases are not isolated.
“The government has no mandate for its legal aid reforms” Foot told the audience, “and the Lib Dems actually voted against the reforms at their Conference, but they haven’t implemented their conference decision”.
“This is an attack on the welfare state” said foot. The 1949 Legal Aid Act aimed to ensure that everyone has access to justice, not just the wealthy.
“This isn’t about fat-cat lawyers fees either.” As a result of the legal aid changes, solicitors are losing their jobs, big “factory firms” are taking on the work, and paralegals on £17,000 a year are taking on cases, said Foot.
The Justice Alliance is made up of over 40 organisations including unions, and for the first time in history, solicitors and barristers took action together and walked out of work this year in protest at the government’s cuts and reforms to legal aid. Last week, solicitors won a judicial review on legal aid with the High Court ruling that the government’s consultation process had been “so unfair as to amount to illegality”.
“We need a commitment from Labour” said Foot, “that legal aid cuts will be reversed and that legal aid will be protected”, and he encouraged us all to take action together in future.
“These cuts are driven by ideology” said Paul Nowak, “the government is driving its political agenda to create a smaller state”.
£4bn will be cut from the justice budget in this parliament, but meanwhile more than a billion has been wasted on a top down re-organisation of our NHS no one unwanted and no one voted for, and extra funding is available for free schools.
“Around 50,000 justice sector jobs in policing, prisons, courts and probation will be lost.” said Nowak.
“Public sector workers are demoralised, have faced years of pay cuts and freezes, and services are understaffed.
When it comes to outsourcing and privatisation, “There is no evidence that the private sector is more effective than the public sector” Nowak told the audience. “And with privatisation, evidence shows there is reduced transparency and accountability. There isn’t a genuine free market in justice anyway, with a handful of companies dominating justice services.”
“You can’t have a world class justice system on the cheap.” Nowak added. “We know there are budget constraints, but our public services need investment. They need to be fairly funded and they need more funding.”
“A Labour government will need to engage with the public sector workforce. We need a new deal for public sector workers in justice and across public services. Labour can take a different approach by moving away from the public sector pay freeze.” said Nowak.
“But we also need a root and branch review of privatisation and outsourcing in public services. Many Labour Councils are showing that services can be delivered in-house more effectively, more efficiently and at lower cost. When privatised services fail – it should be the companies that pick up the price – not communities and taxpayers.”