Martin Luther King once said: ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere’. The deep crisis the Conservatives have unleashed in our justice system should concern us all.
Our Criminal Justice System is supposed to create safer communities with fewer victims of crime. Prevention, policing and effective rehabilitation to reduce re-offending all have their part to play. But under the Tories, communities are becoming less safe. Crime is up. So is reoffending. It is the most vulnerable that pay the price.
Cuts have consequences and they are driving this crisis in justice. The Tories have slashed the Ministry of Justice budget alone by 40%, the deepest cuts of any department. On top of this are substantial reductions to police numbers and CPS budgets. Miscarriages of justices in rape and other serious cases risk becoming more likely. No wonder we are increasingly seeing senior legal figures warning of the justice system crumbling due to the catastrophic effects of chronic underinvestment.
Outsourcing and privatisation go hand-in-hand with cuts. You cannot hand over huge swathes of the justice system to mega-corporations and expect anything other than profit to be put first. And that’s what has happened with Carillion, G4S, Sodexo and others in charge.
Take probation. This is an area of the justice system that rarely gets the attention given to prisons or the police. But each year it manages over 250,000 offenders in the community, many after release from prison. This includes offenders convicted of the most serious offences such as those committed by John Worboys.
The Conservatives’ privatisation of most of probation along with chaotic reforms have proven a costly failure. It has also left us all less safe. Yet private sector failure is rewarded with more public money. Hundreds of millions of pounds in extra funding recently went to bail out the private probation companies. With reoffending rising and private companies failing to meet even basic performance targets, why are the Tories continuing to throw good money after bad? Surely it is time that public safety came before failed ideology?
In prisons, we have reached a tipping point where the general crisis has become an emergency. Shocking revelations of rat infestations and Dickensian conditions at Liverpool Prison marked a new low. Responsibility for the blocked toilets and smashed windows there rested with a private company after the Tories outsourced prison maintenance works. That shambolic policy is yet another contract with the private sector that hasn’t even delivered the promised financial savings.
Sadly, Liverpool is only one example of how Tory cuts and outsourcing undermine our prisons. Already this year the Sodexo-run Peterborough prison become the first women’s prison in years deemed not safe enough. And it’s now come to light that Carillion staff in prisons had not even undergone the basic suicide training all staff interacting with prisoners should have. Such training could have prevented the death of Sean Plumstead.
Prisons Chief Michael Spurr has identified the causes of the prisons emergency. He recently told the Justice Select Committee this wave of problems “coincides with a period where we’ve had to reduce costs substantially - a 24% reduction in our budget. It coincides with significant changes across the way we deliver services both in prisons and in Probation”. Those changes included axing thousands of prisons officers since 2010.
The Conservatives claim to be addressing these massive layoffs - the root cause of much of the unprecedented levels of violence and chaos in our prisons. But still prison officer numbers fell in the past year in one in five prisons. High security prisons fared even worse with one in three losing staff.
But our justice system is not just about building safer communities. It is there to defend essential rights that we must treasure in a civilised society.
Legal Aid was once a great pillar of the welfare state, established to ensure “no one would be financially unable to prosecute a just and reasonable claim or defend a legal right”. When people lack the resources to defend them, long fought-for rights become worth nothing more than the paper they are written on.
Tory slashing of legal aid has left many defenceless. People subjected to flawed benefits decision, those suffering at the hands of dodgy landlords or unscrupulous bosses have nowhere to turn. In 21st Century Britain justice is “unaffordable to most”, according to a senior judge.
With mounting evidence of failure, the government has belatedly announced a review into its legal aid policies (Though it is still refuses to even say how experts and users will be able to participate). But with the Ministry of Justice budget facing £800m cuts in the next two years this review will likely be a badly applied sticking-plaster rather than providing the substantial changes needed to guarantee everyone has access to justice.
A new vision is needed. Labour will invest in police and prison officers. We will oppose the building of more private prisons and the use of PFI in our justice system. We will bring the discredited outsourcing of prisons maintenance works back in house. We will tackle injustices caused by this government’s cruel legal aid policies. And we will restore probation to the award-winning service it once was by returning it to the public sector where it will focus on reducing crime not making profits. In short, we will begin to fix a system broken by Conservative attempts to deliver justice on the cheap.
Richard Burgon is the shadow justice secretary