Five years on from the last General Election, a major assessment by the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies of criminal justice reforms has found that policy across the United Kingdom’s nations and regions is more divergent than ever.
The report – The coalition years: Criminal justice in the United Kingdom: 2010 – 2015 – highlights profound differences in approaches to policing, prisons and community supervision across the United Kingdom.
There are currently three criminal justice jurisdictions in the United Kingdom: the combined jurisdiction of England and Wales, and the separate jurisdictions in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
The coalition years compares criminal justice policy developments across these three jurisdictions since the 2010 General Election. Its main findings are:
- All three jurisdictions faced similar pressures to cut criminal justice expenditure. Different solutions to these pressures emerged across the three jurisdictions as a result of different political choices.
- In England and Wales, the government championed a competitive market in criminal justice services. This included payment-by-results for prison- and probation-related work and local Police and Crime Commissioners responsible for the procurement of a range of police- and crime-related services.
- In Scotland, the government placed the state, rather than the market, at the centre of criminal justice changes. The regional police forces were replaced with a national police force accountable to the Scottish Government. Prison- and community-based punishment was coordinated by the public sector, rather than outsourced to the private sector.
- In Northern Ireland, the Executive sought to develop inclusive criminal justice arrangements less marked by their historic role in counter-terrorism. This included encouraging community involvement in local policing decisions and a major rebuild and reform programme of the prison system.
- The three jurisdictions developed similar approaches to criminal legal aid. These included steps to reduce fees, limit eligibility, require defendants to contribute to the costs of representation, along with moves in the direction of price-competitive tendering. In all three jurisdictions, legal aid was and is delivered largely by self-employed practitioners and legal companies. Cutting payments to external bodies such as these is generally much easier than complex reorganisations of public services.
With another parliament of austerity likely, whichever party or parties form the United Kingdom government following the May 2015 General Election, the report concludes that austerity driven reform, and ongoing divergence of criminal justice policy making, is likely to continue.
Richard Garside, Director of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies and report author, said:
‘When it comes to criminal justice, we live in an increasingly disunited kingdom. There never has been a single, United Kingdom-wide criminal justice system. Recent changes to the police, prisons, probation and legal representation across England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, mean that the United Kingdom’s three criminal justice jurisdictions have never been more unalike.
‘In an era of devolution, difference and policy divergence are to be expected. There is also much that the three United Kingdom criminal justice jurisdictions have in common. This report charts some of the key areas of divergence, while also noting where policy has converged.
‘With another parliament of austerity in the offing, this report offers a valuable insight into the different approaches to criminal justice reform and some of the potential future options.’