Where next for community justice in Scotland?

Kenny MacAskill MSP
Tuesday, 8 December 2015

As the saying goes, 'those that fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it'.

The Scottish Parliament is debating the reform of community justice. It’s a rerun of the previous debate that established the current model less than ten years ago. The same issues and the same tensions: how to ensure local delivery of a national strategy; where power and direction lies between central and local government?

As the Justice Secretary who embarked on the current reforms, some of the blame rests with me. Yet, this is an historic opportunity to change the landscape and allow a radical change to be made to justice policy; and to achieve that switch from custodial to community sentencing that the government so desires.

However, the current concerns being expressed by third sector organisations on accountability, delivery and funding are valid. Moreover, they echo the warnings made only a few years back.

Criminal justice social work

The constituent parts of criminal justice social work in Scotland are strong, not just in the multitude of third sector organisations but in the principal agency of local authorities’ social work departments. The privatisation folly of south of the border has been rejected and the ethos of a holistic service maintained, even if that in itself poses challenges.

However, as austerity bites and pressures mount, criminal justice social work is finding itself being moved ever further to the edges. It was ever the smaller section of an integrated social work department, less resourced and smaller than children and families, though with good reason in many ways.

Many local authorities have since amalgamated social work and education, though the result appears to be the subsumption of one by the other.

Now health and social care are to be integrated. Again there is logic in the national plan but there are dangers too. As social work was subsumed in education, both will now be swamped in health. The already minor section of a major department, it becomes an even smaller part of a much larger organisation. There is the danger that it simply falls off the edge.

But, change there has to be and how to protect it has to be the debate. The past proposals for a national criminal justice agency were railed against by local government, seeing it as a further centralisation plan of national government. Moreover, the spectre of NOMS south of the border overshadowed it, despite the challenges and opportunities being vastly different between jurisdictions ten times different in population.

Another political fix

Back in 2007, opposition from councils was such that a national scheme was abandoned and eight community justice authorities established. They had committed people and often good ideas. But, they were under resourced and underpowered. They were yet another organisation in an already cluttered landscape.

Now, following the establishment of single police and fire and rescue services, the fears of councils are even greater and the hostility towards a national service even more so. That’s why the Bill is framed as it is: yet another political fix between local and national government, but predicated on power rather than outcome.

The return to 32 individual authorities with a myriad of agencies neither addresses the proposal of the Commission on Women Offenders for a national organisation, nor the concerns of the third sector on finance. Funding arrangements remain largely at the whim of already hard pressed local authority budgets.

The ability to direct and hold accountable are equally vague and dependent on a variety of factors. A national agency at the top is dependent on individual local authorities delivering at the bottom. It’s a recipe for obfuscation if not disaster, as budgets tighten but needs expand.

All agree that service delivery needs to be local. It’s where it’s both required and located. The community planning partnerships that are proposed are great in theory; everyone around the table and committed to resolving the specific local and individual needs. But, will they work in practice, as cuts come and challenges with an ageing population arise.

There is the danger that the third sector, who often excel in delivery, will be marginalised, as has happened in other social work areas as councils budgets tighten. The funding will be diverted or not available and the structure will be a meeting place for a worthy talking shop.

To maintain the political truce between tiers of government, the structure is likely to remain unaltered, despite the fears that many have. Hopefully, the ability to switch to a national model, delivered locally, will be built in. For it’s likely that this political fix will also fail to satisfy.