PCS members protesting outside Manchester Justice Centre MARK CAMPBELLLast week the government announced plans to give victims of crime a stronger voice in the criminal justice system. Victims’ minister Damian Green announced a new Victims' Code entitling victims to read a personal statement out in court and to confront offenders face-to-face.
But behind the pro-victim rhetoric are plans to hand over victims' personal data to the private sector.
Justice minister Chris Grayling plans to privatise the enforcement of fines and compensation set by the criminal courts. This means we'll see poorly regulated private bailiffs chasing down payments from criminals. And not just criminals, but victims of crime who are owed compensation for personal injury, loss or damage resulting from an offence. Victims' personal data will be handed to the debt collectors.
Justice contractors likely to be bidding for this work include the disgraced G4S and Serco. Grayling has refused to rule them out of future government work even though the Serious Fraud Office is investigating both companies for alleged overcharging on tagging contracts.
Despite mounting evidence of such companies' unsuitability for serving the public, Grayling wants to entrust them with more highly sensitive work. The privatising Crime and Courts Act 2013 allows for the judicial functions of fines officers to be outsourced. This means that people from the likes of Capita, Serco and G4S will be entrusted with difficult decisions such as whether money should be deducted from offenders' benefits or directly from their earnings and varying the duration or amount of instalments they must pay.
Is the government's victim-friendliness just a disguise?
During a parliamentary debate on legal aid changes Conservative MP David Davis challenged Grayling’s assertion that legal aid was "about the protection by silver-tongued lawyers of serial offenders". Davis said: “in the Crown courts in contested cases, half are found not guilty. What we are talking about, therefore, is providing justice to the innocent and to victims.”
Proposed residency tests for legal aid will also limit access to justice. Human Rights organisation Liberty point out that women alleging that they were sexually abused by guards at Yarl's Wood detention centre would not have had access to public funds.
Plans to privatise probation services put more of us at risk of becoming victims of crime. Napo, whose members are on strike this week over the proposals, warn that further victims will be created under Grayling’s Payment by Results scheme.
Under the government’s ‘Transforming Rehabilitation’ proposals 21 separate Community Rehabilitation Companies will be created. They will need to reduce re-offending by 3 per cent to qualify for financial rewards. Companies may decide that the investment in rehabilitation programmes needed to achieve this is too expensive.
However, they would not be fined until reoffending rates exceed 3 per cent. This led Social Market Finance, a cross-party think tank, to conclude that most companies would make their profit by cutting costs to staff and interventions and simply allow reoffending rates to rise up to 3 per cent and then rely on the fee for service. This perverse incentive to increase reoffending will lead to further victims.
Thousands of complaints
The Probation Service is working well in the public sector - there has been an actual decrease in reoffending rates of 5.6 per cent over the last eight years. There’s no public clamour to change our legal aid system. On the contrary, 71 per cent of those questioned in a recent survey said the government's changes will lead to an increase in miscarriages of justice.
Citizens’ Advice received more than 25,000 complaints about bailiffs last year (predominantly private sector ones). Collection rates by private debt collectors are well below those achieved by staff employed by the courts.
So why is the government intent on overhauling these services?
Well, Grayling is attempting to get his department’s work ‘off the books’ after it was set an unprecedented savings target of 23 per cent during his predecessor Kenneth Clarke’s tenure.
In a recent interview, Clarke boasted that he’d “worked out the maximum I could possibly save, offered it to them (the Treasury) on the last day and they agreed. With the help of a former Treasury official as permanent secretary we did our own hatchet job on our department.”
Clarke’s “hatchet job” was largely predicated on a “rehabilitation revolution” that would see savings made from a fall in prisoner numbers. However, this policy was scrapped and numbers are now at a dangerously high, not to mention costly, level of 85,000, over 99 per cent of maximum capacity. While prisoner numbers have risen, capacity has been reduced by 5,000 places since last August.
Bad policymaking has left the Ministry of Justice scrambling to find budget cuts somewhere, anywhere. Grayling has stepped up his pursuit of privatising probation and prison services, outsourcing functions until now seen as strictly of a judicial nature, such as legal aid and fine enforcement.
Keep services in-house
The Public and Commercial Services Union, PCS, represents more than 1,000 Ministry of Justice workers who currently fulfil enforcement functions. We are campaigning to keep the service in-house. It makes better sense for the Ministry of Justice to reinvest the revenue from fine collection directly to fund justice services.
We want to raise awareness of how the sell-off puts the public at risk.
The delivery of justice is being jeopardised by handing the chasing of criminal fines over to private companies who hardly have a decent track record in this area. People who are unfortunate enough to be victims of crime may be appalled to find that their personal details will be handed over to these same companies.
The recent murder conviction of a G4S guard, with a history of ‘violent and manipulative’ behaviour, has again exposed the danger of having companies that cut corners in their recruitment and monitoring of staff running our public services.
With Grayling intimating that once the likes of G4S and Serco have been seen to purge themselves, his department will be open for business for them again, it’s likely that we’ll see them even further embedded in the delivery of our justice system and given privileged access to citizens’ personal data.
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