The government has had to face-down a number of serious defeats recently, both in parliament and in court. The High Court forced a U-turn on the Benefit Cap for carers, ruling it discriminatory. The courts have also upheld two legal challenges associated with the so-called ‘Bedroom Tax’. In the same week the House of Lords forced the House of Commons to back down on a bill to redefine ‘child poverty’, thus thwarting Iain Duncan-Smith’s attempt to massage down the figures. The peers also voted down a cut of £30 per week for disabled worker’s Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), Lord Colin Low succinctly saying simply that cutting benefits would do nothing to help the disabled back into work.
In the last ten days there has been a significant backdown in the Government’s Ministry of Justice. The staunchly Conservative Michael Gove, replaced the equally staunch, Chris Grayling in the combined role of Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor in May 2015. In a written ministerial statement . Grayling had put in place plans to slash the number of law firms permitted to provide legal assistance at police stations and in magistrates courts by two-thirds. Lawyers said the plans unfairly limited an individual’s access to justice. A whistleblower has revealed that ninety-nine separate legal cases have been brought against the government for failing to provide adequate legal assistance to citizens who relied on legal aid for representation in court. The reforms are now seen as not only unjust, but also as very costly for the government.
Mark Fenhalls QC has said it is right that the plans be scotched. There is a call for an enquiry into just how much money has been wasted on this impractical and inequitable failed experiment in reforming legal aid. While such enquiries make a lot of sense on paper the question is always whether the report will be timely, truly independent, and whether it will have sufficient teeth to actually hold anyone to account in its conclusions.
Plans to slash earnings from legal aid fees for lawyers by 8.75% have also been suspended, for at least a year. Lord Falconer, the Labour shadow Justice secretary said the government’s plans had ‘descended into utter chaos’. In the meantime there are serious concerns about the UK prison system. The number of people in prison has doubled in the last twenty years and the UK now has the highest prison population in Western Europe. The re-offending rate is also one of the highest. Prisoners released after one year in prison re-offend at a rate of 60%. We are not doing a very good job of rehabilitating prisoners. We have them incarcerated in overcrowded prisons in ever-rising numbers.
It costs on average £35,000 a year to keep a prisoner in jail. Could it be then that our prisons are not punitive enough? Sweden has a much more humane approach to prisoners than we do, and the reoffending rate is much lower, half that of the UK, as is the percentage of the population imprisoned. In fact due to the diminshed need for prison space jails in Sweden are being closed down altogether.
Within the UK prison system in the twelve months to 2015 incidents of self-harm are up 20%, assaults on staff are up 21%, while serious assaults on staff are up 40%. The shadow Minister of Justice, Andy Slaughter says these developments are the result of cuts in prison staffing. Deaths in prison custody, including suicides, also appear to be on the rise. The statistics indicate that our prison service is draconian, expensive and inefficient.
The outgoing chief inspector of prisons, Nick Hardwick, has accused the government of trying to cover up criticism of the prison service. He accuses Chris Grayling of attempting to interfere with the inspector’s independent report on the prison service. The Chief Inspector is concerned with the government’s proposal that, in future, specialist personnel appointed to report impartially on the state of the prison service will first be vetted by the government. He feels this seriously undermines the political independence of future investigations. Hardwick is also strongly against asylum seekers being locked up in camps for extended periods of time, drawing attention to the fact that the individuals concerned have been neither accused nor convicted of any crime. He says this treatment is inhumane and that it should only ever be used as a last resort.
Last year Michael Gove closed down Just Solutions International. The previous Justice Minister, Chris Grayling had set up JSI as a commercial arm within the Ministry of Justice staffed by public civil servants. The uncomfortable conflict of interest is surely glaringly obvious. It seems that neither Cameron nor Gove could stomach quite this close a level of profiteering from doing business with, and actually assisting in the mechanism of helping to run, barbaric and inhumane justice systems overseas.
The disarray in the Conservative Party is for some reason not getting a lot of coverage in the media. Perhaps this is because the government is so adept at presenting a unified front no matter what. Nonetheless, there must surely be a number of interesting debacles for the press to feed on here. Perhaps these about-turns in government will get some attention in the media once every last angle on disunity and disarray in Corbyn’s rag-tag army has been exhausted. Surely that can’t be long now.