Crisis after crisis rocked the justice system this summer. Conservative Justice Secretary David Lidington had an opportunity to show that he was getting a grip during his keynote speech at Conservative Party conference. Sadly for the millions who depend on a properly functioning justice system, he fluffed his chance.
Recent events underline just how deep the problems in our justice system go. A scathing report by the Chief Inspector of Prisons in England and Wales condemned how "too many of our prisons had become unacceptably violent and dangerous places," adding that "the situation has not improved," in fact, it has become worse". The Supreme Court ruled that the"government has been acting unlawfully"with the imposition of employment tribunal fees which, alongside a reduction in legal aid, have deliberately restricted access to justice. And new evidence has come to light that the government is now throwing millions more of public money at the privatised probation service at the same time as very serious crimes committed by offenders on probation are up by more than 25%
Yet in the face of unrelenting bad news, Justice Secretary David Lidington served up a speech almost totally devoid of new policy ideas.
Prisons were clearly the priority of his speech. But his talk about prisons being places of reform and rehabilitation is empty rhetoric unless staff numbers are substantially increased to tackle the epidemic of violence and of too many prisoners leaving prison more likely to reoffend.
The Justice Secretary tries to give the impression that the government finally understands that it was the slashing of prisoner officer numbers - down by 7,000 or more than 25% under the Conservatives - that drove the emergency in our prisons. But for all the warm words, the reality is that one third of prisons have seen further cuts in their officer numbers this year alone. Officer leaving rates are up three fold under this government and a belated small increase in officer numbers is being undermined by falls in core backroom staff. The Conservative plans for a further real terms pay cut for prison officers will only make this crisis worse.
Even David Lidington’s key announcement on extra staffing for Young Offender Institutions (YOIs) was a rehash of previous announcements made during the past year. It is a stain on our nation that the Prisons’ Inspectorate found that there is not “a single establishment in England and Wales in which it was safe to hold children and young people.” Yet the Conservative government appears to have run out of ideas of how to address this scandal, which is a direct result of YOIs having lost over 1,000 officers alone under this government.
Perhaps the most shocking part of the speech was the total failure of David Lidington to even mention legal aid, let alone outline any solutions to repair a justice sector that, in the words of Britain's then most senior judge, is now “unaffordable to most” following deep Conservative cuts.
The introduction of the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act in 2012 left many unable to defend themselves in areas as fundamental as housing, employment, immigration and welfare benefits. Figures obtained by Labour last month highlight the devastating consequences of this reform, with the number of legal aid providers down by 20%. Behind that statistic lie hundreds of thousands of human tragedies as government policy targets the most vulnerable to pay for its failed austerity economics and, at the same time, removes the rights of people to defend themselves against these cuts. When people can’t afford to defend their rights, those rights are worth nothing more than the paper they are written on.
In January, May’s government announced it would undertake a review of its legal aid changes. But ten months on the government has given no further information on where this is at. In his conference speech the Conservative Justice Secretary once again refused to say when his own government's review would come out. It is noteworthy that while the Tories are dragging their feet, Labour that has seized the initiative, establishing a commission that has just reported on how to restore legal aid provision.
This lack of a vision for the justice sector is emblematic of a government that has run out of ideas. In the justice system, as in the rest of our society, the government is now incapable of dealing with the crisis that it has caused. Only a Labour government can deliver the changes necessary to serve the many, not the few.