Speech at the Open University Scotland

On 22 April the Centre's director, Richard Garside, spoke at an Open University Scotland event in Edinburgh: 'The coalition years and the Scottish dimension'.

By: 
Richard Garside
Date: 
Wednesday, 22 April, 2015

Thank you for the invitation to speak at this important event today.

First a few remarks about the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies. The Centre is an independent, non-partisan charity. This means that we are not politically aligned, whether formally or informally. Our purpose is to advance public understand of criminal justice and social harm. We also have a strategic partnership with the  Open University through the International Centre for Comparative Criminological Research.

I want to start my remarks with a contrast. One third of the entire territorial extent of the United Kingdom is the responsibility of a single territorial police force. The remaining two thirds of the UK is under a further 44 police forces. The one police force is, of course, Police Scotland. The further 44 forces are the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the 43 English and Welsh police forces. Why is this the case? Why are policing arrangements so markedly different across the UK? This is one of the questions that motivated the Centre to produce the report I am speaking about this evening: The coalition years.

About the UK Justice Policy Review project

The coalition years developed out of the work the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies has been doing since the 2010 General Election, under the auspices of the UK Justice Policy Review project.

Through this project we have been tracking criminal justice developments across the United Kingdom. To date, we have published three annual reports, covering the periods May 2010 to 2011, May 2011 to 2012, and May 2012 to 2013. We will be publishing the fourth annual report, covering the period May 2013 to 2014 next month.

We currently have plans to produce these annual reports, and to organise annual UK Justice Policy Review conferences, right through to 2020.

It is important to emphasise the UK in UK Justice Policy Review. The United Kingdom has three criminal justice jurisdictions: the combined jurisdiction of England and Wales, and the separate jurisdictions of Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Much discussion, certainly among Westminster policy, lobbying and media circles tends to focus on criminal justice developments in England and Wales. At best this leads to a partial picture of criminal justice developments across the United Kingdom. At worse it tends towards a rather narrow parochialism. It is assumed that criminal justice developments in England and Wales are somehow representative of developments across the United Kingdom, or that developments in Scotland and Northern Ireland are of no great interest at a United Kingdom level.

A key purpose of the UK Justice Policy Review project is to describe criminal justice developments across the United Kingdom’s three jurisdictions, drawing out where they are diverging, where they are converging, and where they are just different.

About The coalition years

Description is one thing and is an important task. Explanation is something else. With The coalition years we aim to explain the divergent and convergent criminal justice developments across the United Kingdom since the last General Election, rather than simply seeking to describe them.

The underlying theme of The coalition years is this: that criminal justice reform is, at heart a political project. We take seriously the different political contexts of criminal justice reform in the UK’s three criminal justice jurisdictions, using these to explain why, for instance, we ended up with elected, local Police and Crime Commissioners in England and Wales and a single national police force, overseen by an appointed board, in Scotland. Why probation remained a public service in Northern Ireland and Scotland during this period while it was being privatised in England and Wales.

In The coalition years we do not attempt a comprehensive account of everything that happened in United Kingdom’s three criminal justice jurisdictions since 2010. That is a task for historians. Instead, we simplify a much more complex reality, foregoing a comprehensive account of all developments in the interests of gaining a general understanding of the underlying movements. We do this in two ways.

First, we focus on signal criminal justice developments in the areas of policing, punishment and legal aid. Across the three criminal justice jurisdictions there was major activity in the areas of police reform, prisons and community supervision, and the provision of criminal legal aid. We examine how criminal justice in these three areas developed in sometimes convergent, often divergent, ways.

Second, we seek to explain developments by reference to the distinctive underlying political priorities in each jurisdiction.

  • In England and Wales, the government championed a competitive market in criminal justice services.
  • In Scotland, the government placed the state, rather than the market, at the centre of criminal justice delivery.
  • In Northern Ireland, the Executive sought to develop inclusive criminal justice arrangements less marked by their historic role in counter-terrorism.

These distinctive political approaches – the market in England and Wales; the state in Scotland; civil society in Northern Ireland – played a significant role in shaping the different approaches to criminal justice reform in the three jurisdictions.

So what happened and why? Here I am going to limit my remarks to England, Wales and Scotland, and to three themes: austerity, policing and probation. There is much more detail, including analysis of developments in Northern Ireland, and in relation to prisons and legal aid, in the full report.

Austerity

The financial context has been very different to that which prevailed under the Labour government. The coalition government placed deficit reduction – closing the gap between higher government spending and lower government income – as ‘the most urgent issue facing Britain’. The coalition’s chosen approach – often referred to as ‘austerity’ – involved reducing government spending, and doing so quickly.

Five years on, we can say that the UK government has failed to meet its deficit reduction targets. It has, though, had some success in imposing the public spending cuts it claimed were necessary to achieve deficit reduction. Total public expenditure across the United Kingdom grew, in real terms, by only six per cent between 2010 and 2014. This compares with a 28 per cent real terms growth in the four years to 2010.

Across the United Kingdom, spending on criminal justice grew, by around 17 per cent in the four years to 2010. In the four years to 2014 it fell, by around 12 per cent. The cuts were greatest in England and Wales, where the United Kingdom government had direct political control over criminal justice. In Scotland, where the United Kingdom government’s control was the most qualified, the cuts were the slightest.

In England and Wales, Home Office and Ministry of Justice budgets will have fallen by 19 per cent and 29 per cent respectively between 2010 and 2015. The Scottish Spending Review set out real terms cuts to the Scottish Justice department budget of nine percent by 2015, although in practice this did not happen.

What is most striking about the period since 2010 is just how different the responses to austerity have been across the United Kingdom’s three criminal justice jurisdictions. The common pressures of austerity did not, in general, result in common policy approaches.

To illustrate this I am going to talk about two policy areas: policing and probation.

Police

The creation of elected Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) in the 41 police forces outside London has been the most well-known policing development in England and Wales. The role of PCCs in setting local police and crime objectives in their force area and holding the Chief Constable to account has been much discussed. Here I want to draw out the implications of the Commissioner part of their job title: ‘commissioner’ in the sense of the purchaser of services.

The Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government has championed the role of localised commissioning as part of its reform of public services. A White Paper published in July 2011, entitled Open Public Services, stated that commissioning should be decentralised ‘to the lowest appropriate level’, such as community groups, neighbourhood councils, or, and I quote from the White Paper, ‘local authorities and other elected bodies such as Police and Crime Commissioners’.

Police and Crime Commissioners now commission local victims services. Other possible commissioning powers that have been mooted include probation and youth justice. Police and Crime Commissioners remain controversial. Labour has signalled it would like to abolish them if elected. The government likes Police and Crime Commissioners in good part because they fit in with its vision of the local commissioning of public services.

The 43 police force structure in England and Wales has remained unchanged over the last five years. In Scotland, the main development has been the merger of the eight regional police forces into a single national force: Police Scotland. In place of an elected Police and Crime Commissioner, Scotland has a Police Authority, its members appointed by the Scottish Justice Secretary.

Why has Scotland centralised its police forces under a single national structure, indirectly accountable to the Scottish Justice Secretary? For sure, it is in part a response to austerity. But why this structure? Why this response? This reflects Scottish government’s preference for state-based, rather than market-based, approaches to the delivery of public services. It also reflects a shift in power from the Scottish local authorities, that were responsible for the eight regional Scottish police forces, to the central government in Edinburgh. The Police Scotland reforms therefore represent a dual movement: from local to central control, from democratic to bureaucratic oversight.

Probation

I turn now to probation. The coalition government has privatised the majority of the probation service in England and Wales. Twenty one community rehabilitation companies, dominated by private sector organisations, now deliver the bulk of probation work. A rump public sector organisation – the National Probation Service – retains responsibility for those interventions that are difficult to price in the market. This includes supervision of so-called ‘high risk’ clients. These individuals are unattractive to private companies because the costs and complexity of their supervision are potentially open-ended and thus difficult to quantify.

The coalition has had two goes at privatising probation. Its first attempt, when Ken Clarke was Justice Secretary, envisaged a key role for the 35 Probation Trusts to commission probation services at a local level. This was in keeping with its vision of the local commissioning of public services. This approach did not so much as end in failure as never get started.

Its second attempt, initiated by the current Justice Secretary Chris Grayling, has been successful, at least on its own terms. But it is a very different model. The 21 community rehabilitation companies deliver probation interventions under central contracts with the Ministry of Justice. Ken Clarke’s original vision of a diverse network of local probation marketplaces has been supplanted by a monolithic, centralised market in which a single buyer – the Ministry of Justice – contracts with a small number of providers.

The approach in Scotland has been very different. Probation work in Scotland sits within social service departments, rather than as a separate criminal justice agency, and is coordinated at a regional level through eight local government-dominated Community Justice Authorities.

Under current plans these Authorities are to be abolished; their coordination work dissolving downwards into the 32 Community Planning Partnerships, which operate at a local authority level in Scotland coordinating the delivery of a range of public services. Overseeing and guiding this work will be a new statutory national body: Community Justice Scotland.

In contrast to the centralising moves of Police Scotland, we can see here a decentralising move in relation to probation work, albeit with potentially firmer central oversight through Community Justice Scotland. In comparison with the market-based approach in England and Wales, the Scottish government is placing state and public bodies at the heart of the planning and delivery of community supervision. This is very much in keeping with the Scottish government’s current commitment to placing the state, not the market, at the heart of public service planning and delivery. It is a very different approach to that adopted by the coalition government in England and Wales.

In conclusion

There is a lot more in the full report. I hope that I have given you a flavour of it here. In conclusion we can say that in England and Wales, the government signalled its intention of deepening market mechanisms in the operation and delivery of public services. It proposed the greater application of market forces in probation-related work. Local Police and Crime Commissioners would be responsible for decisions on police budgets and the procurement of a range of police- and crime-related services.

In Scotland, the government signalled an approach that placed the state, rather than the market, at the centre of criminal justice changes. The regional police forces, accountable to Scotland’s local authorities, were replaced with a national police force accountable to the Scottish Government. Rather than outsourcing the delivery of prison- and community-based punishment and supervision to private companies, we find a drive to coordinate delivery through public sector and local government institutions, overseen by the national government.

With another parliament of austerity likely, whichever party or parties form the United Kingdom government following the May 2015 General Election, the role of the dull compulsion to cut and trim will continue to make itself felt across the United Kingdom’s three jurisdictions. The pattern of convergence and divergence in criminal justice policy-making is likely to continue.

Whether such convergences and divergences are a good or bad thing is something that we may want to consider today. There are certainly lessons, for all three jurisdictions, from the paths taken in each. But transfer of policy solutions from one jurisdiction to another – for instance, the adoption of a Police Scotland model in England and Wales, or the application of market processes to probation in Scotland – will always tend towards modification and adaptation at most. The distinctive approaches to criminal justice pursued in England, Wales and Scotland are a response to specific challenges in those jurisdiction. They also reflect underlying governing priorities, philosophies, ideologies and imperatives. Such specificities are not replicable across what remain very different jurisdictions.