What are the challenges facing an incoming government?

Matt Ford
Thursday, 25 September 2014

On 23 September the Centre held a panel discussion at Birkbeck University on the challenges facing an incoming government.

We brought together David Faulkner, former senior civil servant at the Home Office; Frances Crook, Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform; Harry Fletcher, Director of Digital-Trust and former Assistant General Secretary of Napo; and, Professor Tim Newburn of the London School of Economics to gather their insights in the run up to the 2015 General Election. 

The general message was that there are many tough challenges for whoever wins next year's election. Most speakers drew attention to the high degree of flux in the criminal justice system caused by the fast-paced reforms of the coalition.

David Faulkner, the keynote speaker, talked about how an incoming government should approach the criminal justice system generally. Frances Crook focused on prisons, Harry Fletcher on probation, and Tim Newburn on policing. 

All speakers seemed to agree that the criminal justice system has become dominated by politics and ideology. This has a detrimental effect because it elevates these considerations above the best interests of the public and the people caught up in the system. 

David's recommendations drew upon what he had learned from his time at the Home Office. They revolved around three themes; politics, legislation, and running the system. 

He sugested that politicians should take a more thoughtful and balanced approach to criminal justice, and ensure the integrity of the system. Similarly, he said legislation needs to be properly considered and based on principles rather than political expediency. His most illuminating insights were to do with running the system, as this was more geared towards the role of the civil service. He said that a culture of fairness, trust, openness, and respect for evidence should be cultivated.  

Frances highlighted two principles which David had talked about: the duty of criminal justice departments to defend the rule of law, and, policy based on evidence. She said these were key, but had been lost. 

Frances was highly critical of the current prison system. She said she had 'never seen a public service deteriorate as quickly as the prison service has in the last year'. She highlighted staff cuts, prison closures and increases in prison admissions as causes of the crisis.

A ten point programme of challenges for the next government was set out based on this analysis. They would have to sort out short sentences, remands, inderminate sentences, the parole system, prisoner inactivity in penal establishments, women's prisons, children in prison, racism in prisons and courts, and finally, poor leadership by politicians. 

Harry Fletcher said the deterioration of the probation service had been as sharp and dramatic as that of prisons. He focused mainly on the increasing involvement of the private sector in criminal justice, saying that the UK is 'now beyond the tipping point between private and public ownership'.

He then predicted further privatisation of the National Probation Service, crime detection and police community support officers and an increase in third sector involvement in the non-profitable aspects of contracts. He considers this problematic because private provision, in his view, means less transparency and accountability, and financial penalties to the taxpayer if the state withdraws from contracts early. 

Tim Newburn gave one overarching aim that an incoming government should consider: do as little reform as possible over the next five years. This chimed with the consensus that reform has been too quick under the coalition. 

He outlined six auxiliary measures which should also be followed. A Royal Commission should investigate the organisation of the police, with a view to establishing a sensible overall structure. Incumbent Police and Crime Commissioners should should remain in place to avoid more upheaval in the meantime. A coherent system of police governance should be clarified, stressing the importance of values over structure. Arrangements for managing and funding the police in a time of austerity should aso be clarified. Care should be aken to avoid oversimplifying the nature and function of policing. Finally, the next government needs to identify and promote a model of policing that is just and equitable. 

You can take a look at some of David Faulkner's thoughts on what the government's attitude to expertise should be here.