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The government must stop trying to do justice on the cheap

The government must stop trying to do justice on the cheap
4 min read

Cuts and privatisation are driving the justice crisis. Labour stands ready to undo the damage and restore order, writes shadow justice secretary Richard Burgon


The wheels finally came off two key government justice policies this summer, as the Ministry of Justice careers from disaster to disaster.

The decision to return HMP Birmingham to the public sector after unprecedented failures by contractor G4S should have been enough to end the failed experiment with privatisation across our justice system. An end made even more urgent given that, just weeks before, the government was forced to terminate the privatised probation contracts, despite a £500m bailout over the past 12 months alone. Though less newsworthy than prisons, probation manages over 200,000 offenders annually. Privatisation has left the public less safe and out of pocket.

Privatisation alone doesn’t account for the crisis in our justice system. Slashing hundreds of millions of pounds, for example, from prison budgets and axing thousands of staff are key drivers of what we must now call the prisons emergency. Across the board, the scale of justice cuts are eye-watering. By the end of the next financial year, the MoJ’s budget will have been cut by 40% under the Conservatives.

Cuts and privatisation often go hand-in-hand. As budgets fall, there is a greater push for the private sector to step in or to serve as a role model. Under the Conservatives, the driving down of staffing levels and budgets was an attempt to lower the costs of public sector prisons to those in the private sector. That has proven a dangerous race to the bottom. Violence is at record levels with an assault recorded every 20 minutes. We have the highest number of prisons labelled as of “serious concern” in years.

Without a reversal of its current strategy, the government is guaranteeing more of the same. If it carries on slashing justice budgets, then the crisis will deepen. If it insists on yet more privatisation, then there will be more costly failures. The government needs to bite the bullet and accept that a toxic combination of austerity and privatisation has failed our justice system.

Labour is calling on the government to outline an emergency national plan and budget to make our prisons safe. The government’s proposed solution for HMP Birmingham is to reduce the number of prisoners and boost the number of staff. So why not commit to end overcrowding and understaffing across the entire prisons estate? Despite recent recruitment, there are still 3,000 fewer prison officers than in 2010. Tens of thousands of years of experience has been lost in an ongoing exodus of longer serving officers, creating a dangerous cocktail of experienced prisoners and inexperienced officers. What is the strategy to retain officers? Another below-inflation pay rise certainly won’t help.

There should be a moratorium on all further privatisation until there has been an independent review of private sector involvement in our justice system. But despite well-documented failings, the government is again turning to the private sector for solutions. It even hopes that G4S will resume control of HMP Birmingham in six months’ time.

Labour completely rejects the government’s recent decision to build yet more private prisons. If the government refuses to overturn that decision then, at the very least, it should rule out two likely bidders – G4S and Serco – while they remain under a Serious Fraud Office investigation for their involvement in a Ministry of Justice tagging contract. Any bidders for the new private contracts should be clear that Labour in office will put an end to privatisation in our prison system.

It was disappointing that the government prejudiced its own consultation on the future of probation with a commitment to retaining a privately-run service. Labour will return all of probation to the public sector. There, it can focus on reducing reoffending rather than making profits. We have appointed Lord Ramsbotham, a former chief inspector of prisons, to look at how this can best be achieved.

After a summer where the crisis in the justice system has shot up the political agenda, the lesson is clear: the government needs to stop trying to do justice on the cheap. Instead, now is the time to properly invest in keeping our communities safe. 

Richard Burgon is Labour MP for Leeds East and shadow lord chancellor and shadow secretary of state for justice

Read the most recent article written by Richard Burgon MP - Greed will deepen vaccine inequity and prolong the Covid-19 pandemic

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