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Justice for sale: the impact of privatisation and cost-cutting on criminal justice

From Touchstone:

The TUC has launched a speak up for Justice campaign (www.speakupforjustice.org), together with trades unions with members in the justice sector. The campaign calls for an integrated, publicly owned, accessible and accountable justice system, with specific asks in regard to probation, prison services, policing, courts and legal aid.

The campaign has been launched alongside a new a report with research undertaken by the New Economics Foundation (NEF) – Justice for Sale. The report explores the growing scale of private sector involvement in the UK’s prisons and probation service, with the overwhelming majority of contracts held by just three companies, and includes a number of recommendations.

It looks in detail at what has been happening in the three areas of offender management in England and Wales – prisons, probation and electronic tagging – in an attempt to assess the implications for the taxpayers, public safety and the rehabilitation of offenders.

One in six of the UK’s prisons is now run privately – a higher figure than anywhere else in Europe, says the report, and there are now fewer staff employed on lower wages. While supporters of private prisons say that they are both cheaper and more efficiently run, the report finds evidence that they tend to be more overcrowded and that this has been the real reason for any savings achieved.

In 2012-13, for example, 29.3 per cent of prisoners in privately managed prisons were being held in overcrowded accommodation compared to 21.8 per cent in those run by the state. There are real concerns over the impact this has upon inmates.

Concerns about outsourcing and privatisation are shared with parliamentary bodies such as the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), who have raised serious concerns over the government’s reforms to the Probation Service, the Criminal Justice System, as well as in regard to outsourcing in general.

In two recent reports following evidence sessions with senior civil servants, the PAC concluded the “scale, complexity and pace of the changes are very challenging, and the Ministry of Justice’s extremely poor track record of contracting out…gives rise to particular concern.” They also noted that there are “significant risks” to the government’s reforms to the Probation Service, which includes introducing private and voluntary sector providers, managing a greater number of offenders than at present, and a payments by results system, measures which, PAC note, are untested, unpiloted and have unanswered questions as to capacity and accountability.

Despite these significant risks and unanswered questions, much of the probation service will have been handed over to the private sector to run under the government’s transforming rehabilitation programme by next year. Justice for Sale also highlights concerns over the involvement of private firms in the electronic monitoring of offenders. The Serious Fraud Office (SFO) is currently investigating claims that two of the companies which once had tagging contracts alongside Capita – Serco and G4S – have overcharged taxpayers to the tune of millions of pounds.

Public services are increasingly being placed into the hands of a few large private sector companies, whose primary responsibility is to their shareholders, not to citizens, and who cannot be held properly accountable. The Howard League for Penal Reform has compiled a dossier detailing years of failures by the companies G4S and Serco and handed it to the police to encourage them to assist the SFO in their investigation into the two firms. They claim that the evidence gives rise to the possibility of “systematic fraud of the public purse on a massive scale by profiting companies.”

The report and our campaign illustrate the real concerns held by the dedicated professionals who work in our courts, prison and probation services about the agenda of privatisation and cost-cutting being pursued by the government. This is why we need to call for a halt to these reforms and for an alternative that is publicly owned, accountable, accessible, and works in the interest of citizens.


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