Speak up for Justice held a well-attended, informative fringe at PCS’ annual conference this year in May, at which speakers and delegates discussed the impact of government policies and spending cuts on the justice system, as well on access to justice. Delegates to the conference heard from a panel of speakers chaired by Karen Watts, member of PCS‘ National Executive Committee. The panel included Sharon Sukhram, Policy Officer, TUC; Alison Burtt, President, PCS Ministry of Justice (MoJ) Group; Matt Foot, Co-Founder, Justice Alliance, as well as Guy Tilbury, member of Napo’s National Campaigning Committee.
Karen Watts, PCS NEC
Karen Watts opened the fringe by reflecting that the last few years have seen “unprecedented attacks on our justice system and access to it”, as 142 courts have closed with more and more work centralised, 70 per cent of probation services have been privatised and there have been £220m legal aid cuts a year. Karen pointed out:
“We believe that legal aid cuts are leading to miscarriages of justice. This is just the start, as we now have a government with a Conservative majority.”
Alison Burtt, PCS MoJ Group
Alison Burtt, PCS’ MoJ Group President, explained how under the last government, justice has been “subject to efficiency drives”, as there have been “dramatic cuts in legal aid and public funding has been almost totally withdrawn from family cases.” Court cases are now very difficult and fraught without lawyers, Alison observed, and in family cases:
“Children now see their parents arguing in court and court ushers are asked questions they are not qualified to answer.”
Alison reflected that due to the drive for efficiency, court staff “are now thinking that justice has been redefined”, while this efficiency drive has been “accompanied by a huge loss of staff.”
Guy Tilbury, Napo National Campaigning Committee
Guy Tilbury from Napo’s Campaigning Committee outlined the catastrophic impact of the former government’s reforms to probation services, which “caused a great deal of anxiety among staff”. When the probation service was split in two last year, with 70 per cent of it privatised, Guy recalled:
“The decision as to who went into which part of the probation service was based on caseloads on one day, and in some cases on the toss of a coin, despite the attempts of Chris Grayling to deny this in the House of Commons.”
One of the most insidious aspects of the reforms was, Guy pointed out, that fearing an election defeat, the last government “ensured the contracts for probation services were formulated so that they would be impossible to be rescinded.”
What are the consequences of these reforms? Guy reflected that multinational outsourcing firm Sodexo, one of the key beneficiaries of the probation reforms and provider of several of the new contracts, “is planning massive redundancies, in some cases replacing staff with kiosks.” The use of kiosks in probation was trialled in London Guy explained, during which only one kiosk actually worked.
Finishing his presentation, Guy stressed the importance of solidarity – “If all unions work together, there is greater chance to alert the public to their plans. We can keep alive the values of justice for all.”
Matt Foot, Co-Founder of the Justice Alliance
Matt Foot from the Justice Alliance opened his presentation by reflecting on the priorities of the former and current governments:
“There is £70bn in uncollected tax revenue from the rich, the government should focus on this rather than taking money from legal aid.”
Matt spoke about the former government’s Global Law Summit, held to mark the anniversary of 800 years since the signing of the Magna Carta, at which, “with no shame, the government linked the Magna Carta to free enterprise.” Tickets to this summit, Matt recalled, cost £1,750 each.
Matt then described the sheer scale of cuts to the justice system and to legal aid including to legal advice, concluding, “The government wants the right to take as much money as possible out of the public purse, while getting rid of rights for everyone.”
Ending his presentation, Matt noted that though “It is a very difficult time. It is up to us as trade unionists to bring together the mood of anger to stop this happening. The barristers and solicitors took their first strike in history last year. Today the Bar are balloting again to protect solicitors.”
Echoing the comments of other speakers, Matt Foot argued that “There is still everything to play for, we need to keep the issue on the agenda in creative ways.”
Sharon Sukhram, Policy Officer, TUC
Sharon Sukhram gave a presentation on the Speak up for Justice campaign, its activities, partners and focus:
“Unions have come together to work in collaboration and campaign against this unprecedented attack on our justice system.”
The campaign has been running for just under a year and is aimed at securing an integrated, publicly owned, accessible and accountable justice system.
Sharon’s presentation gave a comprehensive overview of each aspect of the campaign not covered by the other speakers, including prisons, prisoner education, and policing, outlining the crises occurring in each of these areas. In regard to prisons, Sharon noted that severe overcrowding, staff shortages, reduced access to education, the negative impact of regular compulsory competitive tendering processes and a serious decline in safety illustrated the scale of the current crisis.
Sharon’s presentation also covered policing, where she described how police forces have been subject to severe budget cuts in recent years, and that there are now far fewer police staff than in 2010 (34,400 less). At the same time, the government is doing policing on the cheap, by quietly the recruiting of a ‘Home Guard’ of 9,000 police volunteers, according to research by UNISON. In prisons and policing, some services have also been privatised, largely in secretive ways that lack any sense of transparency.
Sharon ended her presentation by mentioning the importance of campaigning in the current climate:
“Please do get involved in the campaign. We need your support and important that we continue to work together.”
Following a very informative and interesting discussion, some of the final comments of the event concerned future campaigning. James Davies, Campaigns Officer at PCS spoke of how the former Justice Secretary Chris Grayling had galvanised groups against him, illustrated when barristers took industrial action in early 2014, supported by court staff. James spoke of the importance of continuing to campaign together, in creative ways.
One important issue also covered in the discussion was the need to defend the Human Rights Act, and the impact of government proposals to abolish it on the justice system and access to it. Guy Tilbury from Napo gave a concluding remark noting how we are at risk of losing many of the rights people fought for in the twentieth century, including access to justice:
“What we are seeing could be seen as a parallel to the rise of fascism in twentieth century Europe. The rights we fought for and secured after World War II are being lost.”