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UK justice workers walk out in protest against privatisation

The latest move in the swift and radical marketisation of British justice: the government is privatising the enforcement of criminal fines. Critics say this will push more vulnerable people into the hands of rogue bailiffs.

Campaigners outside the Old Bailey in London opposing government privatisation of justice. Image: PCS/Jess Hurd. All rights reserved.

The UK government is pressing ahead with plans to privatise criminal enforcement, despite new revelations about major companies holding Ministry of Justice contracts and major concerns about how private debt collectors operate.

Earlier this month the justice minister Chris Grayling was forced into an embarrassing announcement that two private companies that held contracts with the MoJ for the electronic tagging of offenders had been overcharging taxpayers by tens of millions of pounds. The two firms – G4S and Serco – had charged to monitor non-existent electronic tags, some of which had been assigned to dead offenders.

He told Parliament that there would be a review launched into the way in which the MoJ handled its contracts. The Cabinet Office meanwhile would look into all government contracts held by the two companies and the Serious Fraud Office was to investigate G4S who had failed to co-operate with an audit to rule out wrongdoing.

My union, the Public and Commercial Services union (PCS), which represents more than 20,000 justice workers, has long campaigned against the government’s ideological drive to privatise services. We could be forgiven for thinking that this latest scandal would mean that the pace of privatisation would be abated. However, despite these revelations the MoJ has launched a tendering process for the privatisation of criminal fine enforcement even though G4S and Serco are likely to be among the main bidders.

PCS members who collect court fines, chase up unpaid fines and breached warrants have met all targets set for them in the last year and increased collection rates by 15 per cent. Meanwhile, private debt collectors successfully chase only about one in five of what they are given to collect.

Not only will the public get no value for money from the sell-off but it will put more people at risk of being intimidated on their doorstep by rogue bailiffs.

The problem of private bailiffs using threatening behaviour and misrepresenting their powers is already a considerable one. Citizens Advice reported that problems with bailiffs have risen by 38 per cent - 56,000 in 2011/12 compared to 40,900 in 2007/08.

The industry is clearly in dire need of proper regulation, yet government reforms have been criticised for only scratching the surface of what’s needed. For example, calls for an independent complaints system for people who have been victims of bailiffs have been ruled out.

Our members come across some shocking examples of behaviour by private bailiffs. Children have been threatened with having their toys and possessions taken away and their mother being imprisoned. When the complaints system was debated in the House of Lords, Labour’s justice spokesperson Lord Beecham told peers:

“A woman whose daughter had a brain tumor and was constantly in and out of hospital was visited by the bailiffs. The mother would not answer the door because her daughter was in a bad state on that particular day. The bailiff spent some time kicking the door and returned a warrant to the court with the footnote, ‘Defendant very aggressive’. One might think that that was quite a projection on the part of the bailiff.”

The Ministry of Justice is facing a 23 per cent cut of £2 billion by 2015 with a further 10 per cent to be cut by 2016. The Public and Commercial Services union argues that the money collected from court fines and fixed penalty notices should be reinvested to ensure the justice system is adequately funded.

On Tuesday court enforcement workers will stage two-hour walkouts in response to the MoJ’s plans to privatise their work. They are not alone in their growing dismay over the government’s policy of putting the market first when it comes to delivering justice services. Members of the public sector union Unison have voted overwhelmingly in favour of taking action over plans to privatise probation services.

Justice Alliance, a group of legal organisations, community groups and trade unions are marking 64 years of legal aid by staging protests in London and Manchester, also on Tuesday. Campaigners are angry about the £220 million a year cut which will see access drastically reduced, increase miscarriages of justice and small high street solicitors put out of business.

In its consultation paper ‘Transforming legal aid’ the government stated that it wanted to “restore the public’s faith in the system.” However, there is no evidence that the public has lost faith in the system. In fact, it is the government’s proposed changes that are worrying the public with 71 per cent of those questioned in a recent survey believing that they will lead to an increase in miscarriages of justice.

The government received an avalanche of responses to its consultation. The proposals for introducing competitive tendering for criminal legal aid have proved particularly contentious. The proposed legal aid market will potentially become solely the domain of large corporations as small local practices are priced out. Tenders are likely to be awarded to firms that can do the work for the lowest price rather than those that provide a quality service and are aware of client needs. The fact that the legal subsidiary of the haulage firm Eddie Stobart was the first to express an interest to the proposed legal contracts has come to exemplify such concerns.

Existing experiences prove contrary to the government’s doctrine of private sector efficiency working best for justice delivery.

The UK has the highest proportion of private prisons in the world. The project’s failure was once again highlighted last week when a MoJ report on prison performance gave the G4S-run Oakwood and Serco-run Thameside the lowest ranking possible.

Responding to the assessment, Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League of Penal Reform, said: “Last autumn, the justice secretary hailed G4S Oakwood as an example of what the private sector could achieve in prisons. We agree. The prison, ranked joint-bottom in the country, is wasting millions and creating ever more victims of crime.”

With no sign that the government is prepared to reconsider its obsession with outsourcing in the light of such damning evidence, PCS is calling for an independent review of the overall impact of prison privatisation.

The courts system has also experienced chaos after the £42 million contract for court interpreter services awarded to the company ALS saw only 58 per cent of bookings met causing a sharp rise in delayed, postponed and abandoned trials and individuals kept on remand solely because no interpreter was available.

If the Ministry of Justice allowed similar failings to occur on the fine enforcement contract the impact on justice delivery will be even more catastrophic. This obsession with sacrificing justice services at the altar of the market needs to stop, otherwise a legal system that is respected the world over will irreparably damaged.


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