I had the great pleasure and privilege to chair an extremely high-powered debate on justice a few days ago. Dozens of judges and magistrates, senior police and prison officers, high profile members of the legal profession, prison educators and leaders of community groups, all came together to talk about what is right and wrong with our system. The evening, which began with an inspiring address from Baroness Helena Kennedy QC, was conducted under the Chatham House Rule which means I can tell you what people said but not who said it. The purpose of the rule is to allow free and fearless discussion. In other words, participants get to say what they really think.
The discussions were very good-natured and constructive, and it was heartening to hear these extremely knowledgeable people, all experts in their own areas, list a number of ways in which they believe the system works very well for victims of crime, offenders and society at large. However one point kept on being made over and over, that central to everything we do within the justice system is the importance of working in partnerships.
Milton Keynes College is one of the largest providers of offender learning in England's prisons. In fact college staff are delivering education in thirty per cent of the country's jails and young offenders' institutions. What we have learnt over more than twenty years of working in the sector is that without the cooperation of prison service staff and governors, the Home Office, third sector partners, other agencies and offenders themselves, progress will be critically limited. If those working in jails don't believe in the value of teaching the people they are there to oversee, and don't help ensure lessons can take place on time with the relevant students able to attend, the results will be poor. The key word here is trust. If staff, teachers and governors don't have sufficient of it in each other, no amount of investment in prison education will have the desired effect.
Trust is a word which came up time-and-again on the night. Buckinghamshire's enviable record on safeguarding children was put down to good, trusting relationships between police, social services and the multiple specialist agencies who work together to protect children and young people. Several agencies were praised for their collaboration in terms of domestic abuse cases. Representatives from minority communities praised the police for their willingness to work together with them. Even the much maligned European Arrest Warrant came in for substantial praise - a continent-wide example of trust across justice systems.
The thing about trust is that unlike budgets and systems it is not something which can be instituted at the stroke of a pen. Genuine partnership, based on trust and shared objectives takes time and effort to develop and sustain. It requires listening as well as talking, a willingness to compromise and a commitment to honesty. What we discovered during our debate is just how much trust and genuine goodwill there is out there, and if it's in Buckinghamshire there's no reason why it isn't all across the country. I left the debate thinking that actually, despite austerity, despite very different delivery structures and notwithstanding some very serious challenges to access to justice that cannot be ignored, the professionals involved are committed, determined and share a collective passion about which we should be optimistic. Our shared challenge is to collaborate, to innovate and to support and challenge each other so that, as a team, we succeed.