Mistakes Multiply in the Ministry of Justice

Just Solutions International, a commercial arm within the Ministry of Justice, set up by Chris Grayling in 2013, had to be wrapped up last year. The idea of the MoJ participating in imprisonment without trial, death by stoning of women for adultery, torture, beatings, and decapitations, in various nations across the world for commercial gain was simply too much to stomach. This was one moral blot on the landscape too far, even for this government, hell bent as it is on making money out of anything that can be privatised.

In another of his ugly failed reforms, Grayling attempted to drastically cut legal aid, and to slash earnings of legal aid lawyers by 8.57%. The public brought 99 cases against the government for infringement of their right to fair, legal representation under the law. These cases were very costly for the govenrment to defend. The government had to back down.

In terms of prison services, Grayling will be remembered for cuts to funding and for privatisation. The number of prison staff has been slashed by one third since 2011 while the number of inmates has increased relentlessly for many years. Compared to other countries in Western Europe Britain has both a high inmate population and a high re-offending rate. Over 60% of people incarcerated for relatively minor rimes, with sentences of less than a year, re-offend. Prison is not working as a deterrent, it is more likely than not a pathway to hardened criminality.

Many inmates enter the prison services with mental health concerns. In the newly privatised probation service there have been cuts to health, drugs, alcohol and domestic violence counselling services. The MoJ has recently launched an enquiry into the case of a female inmate who was not transferred to a mother-and-baby unit after giving birth in prison. Instead her baby was taken away from her. She then committed suicide, found hanging in her prison cell. The number of incidences of suicides and self-harm in prisons and attacks on prison staff are all sharply on the increase.

So, on balance, Grayling’s reforms have proved to be morally unpalatable, legally untenable, unsuccessful as a deterrent to crime, and extremely costly to the government and the tax payer. However, not all the problems that the new Minister, Michael Gove, will face stem from Grayling’s reforms. The MoJ has just revealed statistics that show that the number of tenants evicted from their homes by bailiffs has increased by 53% over the past five years. According to the chief executive of Shelter, Campbell Robb,  the figures were “clear proof of the devastating impact welfare cuts and the chronic shortage of affordable homes were having on hundreds of renters every day.”

The shadow housing minister, John Healey, said the figures could be “just the tip of the iceberg” as some tenants might not be going through the court process. The MoJ figures include evictions by social landlords, such as housing associations. Some analysts, such as Rowland Atkinson, argue that eviction of tenants from low cost housing, brought about by cuts in welfare benefits, is part of a deliberate government intention to free up whole swathes of London for private profiteering by property developers. The resulting gentrification will increase homelessness and deprivation in the capital. It is not difficult to imagine that this will feed back into more problems of law enforcement in the capital and more pressure on prison services across the country.

The experiment with privately-run super-sized, jumbo prisons such as HMP Oakwood, near Wolverhampton, run by G4S, has had a rocky history. Some have called Oakwood a ‘dumping ground’ for troublesome prisoners. The rate of sick leave and staff turnover is high, as are incidents of self harm, suicide and re-offending among prisoners. The outgoing chief inspector of prisons, Nick Hardwick, says it is easier to get hold of illegal drugs than soap in Oakwood prison. He has also accused the government of covering up the truth about the state of British prisons.

Meanwhile an even bigger prison is scheduled to open in Wrexham in September 2017. One third of the running of this prison is due to be outsourced to private companies. In the light of the fear of radicalisation of inmates within prisons the government is looking into a proposal for a new, distinct, ‘alcatraz’ prison for the incarceration of Islamic terrorist prisoners. The number of prisoners in this category has risen recently from 94 in 2013 to 137 in 2015.

This is the mess that Michael Gove, the new Minister of Justice, is called upon to sort out. It is as well to remember that tenant evictions, homelessness and social deprivation are as relevant to reforms within the MoJ as are conditions with the prison services, re-offending rates and the provision of legal aid. Without these considerations there is little to be gained from so-called cost-saving measures. The government has said it will be considering all options.The question is whether reversing the damage done by privatisation will be on the table, or whether the ideological predisposition for ever-more privatisation will continue regardless of any evidence that it is proving counterproductive on any number of grounds.




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