Labour will end the crisis in our justice sector
Disorder and injustice prevail across the justice sector. But Labour stand ready to solve this triple crisis, writes Richard Burgon
People expect our justice system to perform two fundamental roles. It must defend victims and it must punish and rehabilitate offenders to keep us all safe. Recent events expose how the Conservative government’s policies are failing on both fronts.
A triple crisis is now eroding public confidence in this government’s ability to uphold access to justice and manage prison and probation services.
Perhaps the most extraordinary example of this crisis was this summer’s supreme court ruling that the government had acted unlawfully with its decision to charge employment tribunals fees, denying access to justice to thousands of vulnerable people. No ministry should adopt policies that break the law. It is particularly shameful when it is the Ministry of Justice doing so.
Arguably, the crisis is even more acute in our prisons. The chief inspector of prisons’ recent scathing annual report describes prisons as “unacceptably violent and dangerous places” that are getting worse with staffing levels “too low to keep order”.
The chief inspector’s counterpart for probation was no less direct with her rebuke of the failings of key services in this privatised sector. A once highly rated service, when run by the public sector, is now “making little real difference to people’s life chances as they leave prison” with no real prospect that these “will reduce reoffending”.
That so many respected authorities in the justice sector are simultaneously highlighting crises is not bad luck, nor is it coincidence. It is the inevitable consequence of the Conservatives’ deep cuts, privatisation and vision of justice as a commodity rather than a right. Cuts have consequences and the Ministry of Justice has suffered some of the deepest since 2010. The consequences are as dire as they were predictable.
Labour has a clear strategy to address this triple crisis. Our starting point will be to end the two-tier nature of our justice system that our most senior judge labelled as “unaffordable to most”. Labour has established a special commission, headed by Lord Bach, to examine access to justice. Following his final report this autumn, we will outline our plan to re-establish the legal aid services now denied to hundreds of thousands of people.
In the wake of the supreme court’s employment tribunal judgment, we are also demanding that the government undertakes an urgent independent review into the effects on access to justice of other court fees.
Resolving the prisons crisis means reversing the chronic staff shortages caused by the loss of 7,000 frontline prison officers. The belated decision by the government to begin to recruit more officers is welcome. But the latest figures showing that one-third of all prisons have suffered a further fall in numbers in 2017 is extremely worrying. As is the warning by the former director-general of prisons that an unplanned-for surge in prisoner numbers over the summer has undone the benefits of any new prison officer recruitment.
Labour will, as a first step, recruit 3,000 more prison officers and engage with staff bodies to identify the other specialists needed to ensure that prison works. In office, Labour would ensure that prison officers are not facing further pay cuts but are rewarded as valued members of a restored justice sector. The government’s latest pay offer to prison officers of 1.7% - around £1 per day for front-line officers - is yet another real terms pay cut and is no solution to the deep problems our prisons face. Not only will it make sustaining recruitment levels much harder but it will undermine the retention of the experienced staff now leaving at three times the rate of when the Conservatives came to power.
Prisons must be places of rehabilitation and this must continue after a prisoner leaves jail. It is increasingly evident that the part-privatisation of probation services with the creation of the Community Rehabilitation Centres has failed to keep the public safe and turn lives around. We will be challenging the government over reports that millions of pounds extra have recently been handed to these private companies. Labour has placed the CRCs on alert and we will carry out a thorough review into their role when we are in government. No option will be left off the table in turning around our probation services.
The time when the Conservatives could claim credibility on law and order has long gone. Disorder and injustice prevail across the justice sector. In office, Labour will stand ready to put an end to this ideologically driven crisis.
Richard Burgon is Labour MP for Leeds East and shadow lord chancellor and shadow secretary of state for justice