The Speak up for Justice campaign hosted a fringe at TUC Congress to address the question ‘Who are the government’s justice reforms benefitting?’ We brought together a range of speakers to debate the issue, covering all sectors of the justice system. The fringe was well attended by a full audience of Congress delegates and guests, and took place on Tuesday 15 September.
Panel members included: Vera Baird QC, Police and Crime Commissioner, Northumbria; Matt Foot, Co-Founder, Justice Alliance; Rebecca Grattan, Chief Operating Officer, MTCNovo; Ian Lawrence, General Secretary, Napo; Ruth Hayes, Director, Islington Law Centre; Steve Gillan, General Secretary, POA; Jerry Petherick, Managing Director, Custodial & Detension Services, G4S. The meeting was chaired by Matt Dykes, Senior Policy Officer for Public Services, TUC.
The fringe included presentations by each panel member as well as a Q&A session with the audience, here are some highlights:
Vera Baird QC
Vera kicked off by addressing the question of the fringe directly, arguing, “The only beneficiaries are a few businesses who might, only might, make some profit, and the government who want to destroy the sector”. Vera posed the question as to whether defendants are benefitting from the justice reforms? Recalling the new charges brought in by the government for criminal courts, Vera noted that charges now range from £150 to £1200, which “apply equally to everyone regardless of means”.
In regard to the new probation reforms, Vera reflected that if convicted of a crime, “instead of getting support from expert probation officers, you will now click into a machine”. Are victims benefitting from the reforms, Vera asked? Reflecting on the huge changes brought in as a result of LASPO (Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012), she noted that legal aid has been removed from many cases, and “the qualifications are extremely arbitrary”. One of the very worrying consequences has been that “40 per cent of abuse victims are not getting legal aid for domestic abuse cases”.
Rebecca Grattan, MTCNovo
Rebecca is the chief operating officer for MTCNovo, the new owner of the London & Thames Valley area Community Rehabilitation Company (CRC), which started life following the government’s overhaul of probation services, in which 70 per cent of services were contracted out to non-public providers. MTCNovo are a joint venture involving US-based private company MTC, as well as Novo, who are a consortium of public, private and third sector organisations including multinational Amey, a staff mutual, two charities and Manchester College. Rebecca noted that “we are in the early part of the Transforming Rehabilitation journey, it is too early to see the benefits.”
In contrast to Vera, Rebecca argued that “our early indications are positive”, and that there are three sets of individuals who will benefit from the reforms – firstly, she argued “offenders themselves”, as “resettlement services can now provide support to offenders on short-term sentences.” Secondly Rebecca argued that staff will benefit, though she acknowledged that “each operator of the CRCs will have a different view on how to work with staff, for us, it is investing in staff and career development.” Finally, Rebecca drew attention to the general public, who she argued would benefit by receiving “value for money” as a result of the ‘payment by results’ model in the new reforms.
Ian began his presentation by noting that the contracts for new providers of the probation CRCs are now in the hands of a few organisations with two multinationals owning over half of them, rather than the diversity of providers promised by the government, that this “makes a mockery of Grayling’s promise to open up services to mutuals/charities.” Ian said that since last year’s TUC Congress, Napo has “campaigned tirelessly against the new probation system”, and that there is “little evidence that the reforms are off the block yet.”
Ian mentioned that the probation service is beset with “ongoing IT problems”, while “we have seen skilled, experienced probation practitioners leaving the service”. Delving into the reforms more critically, Ian argued that “as we get more into this, we find the real truth – that some CRCs weren’t told all the facts when entering into the bidding process”, while many providers are now “reverting to type – maximising profits to satisfy shareholders.” One issue Ian drew specific attention to was that Sodexo had planned 600 redundancies among staff in the CRCs they own, which, though reduced to 400 as a result of Napo’s campaigning, Ian argued, shows their real intentions. Ian also noted that Sodexo has refused to honour the staff transfer agreement.
Ending his presentation, Ian said that staff working in the new National Probation Service (NPS) have “ever increasing workloads”, and are faced with “giving oral reports to courts without adequate risk assessments. The NPS supports high-risk offenders, and comprises the remaining 30 per cent of probation services not within the remit of the CRCs (which support low and medium risk offenders), and which has not been contracted out.
Matt opened his presentation with a quote from Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Justice – “There are two nations in our justice system…On the one hand, the wealthy international class who can choose to settle cases in London with the gold standard of British justice. And then everyone else…” However, Matt’s summation of the beneficiaries of government reforms stands in stark contrast to the government. Matt said the first group of beneficiaries are the hypocrites – “The Chief Justice is the chief hypocrite, followed by David Cameron”, the latter of whom organised an anniversary celebration of the Magna Carta last year – Global Law Summit, in which the only invitees were big business.
Matt reflected that this government has “probably a world record in denying justice, that 6,000 people have been taken out of legal aid by the LASPO reforms”, after which Matt noted that since the introduction of LASPO, there has been an 80 per cent drop in those receiving legal advice. So who benefits, Matt asked? In answer, he said “the Rachman landlord…[in reference to the landlord Peter Rachman who became notorious for exploiting his tenants in Notting Hill, in the 1950s/60s]…the violent partner, the bullying employer.” Employers, Matt noted, “will now know you cannot get funding for employment tribunals.”
Matt also drew attention to the 15 per cent cut in legal aid fees for providers of legal aid, which led solicitors and barristers to take industrial action earlier this year. He noted the beneficiaries will be legal companies with “little history or understanding of issues, and a system where the incentive is to do as little work as possible in cases.”
Ruth gave a very comprehensive account of the impact of government reforms on civil justice. She noted that the issue is “also about holding the state to account – about ensuring the Department for Work & Pensions understands legislation…about the Home Office being able to deal with cases speedily. Our experience is this is not happening.” Ruth argued there is a “lack of access to justice…the rule of law is not being upheld for vast numbers of people.”
The LASPO reforms, Ruth reflected, have resulted in the loss of a lot of the high street firms who used to have a good understanding of issues covered by civil legal aid, while people who previously would have been able to access legal aid are now much more vulnerable and at risk. Ruth asked who has benefitted? “Not our clients, not wider society, but dodgy providers, as well as policy makers who favour short-term solutions.”
Steve began by noting that David Cameron has said private companies have brought in efficiency to the justice sector, but “we do not agree.” Steve said that when the government announced a rehabilitation revolution, “the POA was sceptical – the government said there would be a reduction in the prison population, but it has increased. No revolution has happened.”
Steve argued that the terms used by government in reforms – whether ‘Through the Gate’ or ‘Pathways’ etc, are “just to confuse people. What will work, is if they deal with the root and branch causes of crime. The core issues of offending are alcohol abuse, drug abuse, and mental health issues – until they deal with these, nothing will move forward.” Steve drew attention to the need for investment in schools, jobs and services including housing, as “by the time offenders come to prison, it is too late”.
Steve said the public and offenders are not benefitting from the reforms, and that “budget cuts throughout the system are not helpful – there are so many less prison officers, yet so many more prisoners”. Steve asked “when we talk about payment by results, what does that actually mean? How is it assessed? No one person, whether private, probation, or prison service can claim the right of rehabilitation.” Steve also noted that the privateers claim of payment by results is taking money from the public, which “should be reinvested in public services.”
Jerry manages G4S’ custodial and detention services, and argued that competition has led to “more efficient services, which benefit the public and staff”. Jerry drew attention to HMP Birmingham, the first prison to move from the public to the private sector and research commissioned by NOMS (National Offender Management Service), regarding the transfer.
Jerry argued that “competition creates change, if it is proper competition”. Of some of the major challenges in prisons, Jerry reflected that the “scourge of psychoactive substances” and a “split between an older and younger prison population” were big issues to deal with. Jerry also argued that ” we need to do more in regard to staff training, recruitment and retention of staff”.
The major challenge in prisons, Jerry said, was “violence – which is too easy to attribute to drugs. It is often down to two human beings who don’t have the skills to communicate.” As a final note, Jerry reflected that “he is a great believer in strong unions and working with strong unions. Throughout my experience, real difficulties come when unions aren’t strong. We get a better outcome when there is a strong union that we are dealing with.”
Chair Matt Dykes gave a summary of the event, and drew delegates’ attention to look to future work of the Speak up for Justice campaign, which calls for a publicly owned, accountable and accessible justice system.