Healey said that an attack from Howe was "like being savaged by a dead sheep".I notice Bob Neill, the newly reappointed chair, is not a happy bunny and used a piece in the Times last week to make his displeasure known. I thought his comment on probation was an absolute classic:-
"The system set up under the government’s Transforming Rehabilitation programme is evidently not functioning as intended, and a raft of issues need addressing.."It also comes to something when he doesn't seem to have noticed there's been some changes at the MoJ:-
"I have made no secret that I believe the National Offender Management Service lacks the managerial leadership to achieve the government’s vision.."Anyway, he's on the case and people had better watch out.
We have urgent work to do on prisons, legal aid and probation
Everyone around Westminster pays lip service to the importance of select committees but getting them up and running after the general election has proved to be a rather leisurely process. While the chairs have now been elected, other members will not have been appointed by the parties until we return in September.
Given that we will only be here for two weeks before the party conference season kicks in, little serious work is likely to be achieved until the second week of October. Effectively, that means that over a third of the year will have gone by without government, or anyone else, being subject to full parliamentary scrutiny.
Cynics might suggest that no government, whatever its political complexion, is going to rush to be scrutinised. I don’t suggest that is the motive here, but the delay is unsatisfactory, and it is therefore no surprise that support is growing for the timetable to be set in future by the house itself, rather than relying upon the priorities of the “usual channels”.
It’s also a shame because there is a lot of work to do. For the justice committee alone, I would flag up four key priorities:
First, prisons – undoubtedly the biggest issue on the new secretary of state’s desk, and one that consumes nearly half of the whole Ministry of Justice budget. This well documented crisis was reiterated again last week in a damning report by the Chief Inspector of Prisons, signalling the need for an urgent change in approach from the top down. I have made no secret that I believe the National Offender Management Service lacks the managerial leadership to achieve the government’s vision, and given it has failed to arrest the declining situation across the prison estate, it’s difficult to justify the hefty bonus its chief executive received last week.
The omission of the prisons element of the previous Prisons and Courts Bill from the Queen’s Speech is admittedly a blow, but I am pleased that David Lidington has committed to continuing the prison reform agenda initiated by Michael Gove. Not all of this will require legislation, but it will need a clear political commitment from day one, especially to deliver the ambitious proposals set out in last year’s white paper, including the statutory statement that prisons must primarily be a place of rehabilitation.
That leads me on to probation & preventing reoffending. The system set up under the government’s Transforming Rehabilitation programme is evidently not functioning as intended, and a raft of issues need addressing, including the performance and financial viability of community rehabilitation companies and their interface with the National Probation Service.
Third, there are serious questions around access to justice. This is something the committee has raised concerns about in the past in terms of courts and tribunal fees, but we will also be looking to press the government on its promised post-legislative review of LAPSO (Legal Aid, Punishment and Sentencing of Offenders Act 2012). Although I understand the budget pressures at the time of its introduction, my personal view is that we have now removed more than the system can take and should rectify the anomalies as soon as possible (a glaring example being the lack of legal aid available for the parents of Charlie Gard, something no fair person could agree with).
There is also a need to look carefully at the human impacts of the government’s courts modernisation programme. There is a balance to be struck between achieving efficiencies and ensuring we have access to justice. I’m not convinced we’ve got that right if it means significantly longer and more expensive journeys, or anti-social court hours, for parties, witnesses and lawyers alike.
Finally, we must consider the legal implications of Brexit. Our legal system is respected around the world and the legal services sector contributes £25.7 billion to the UK economy. It’s another area where we need an early commitment to realistic and substantial transitional arrangements, listening to the concerns of the industry and addressing them as a matter of priority.
With the arithmetic of the Commons being what it is after the general election, select committees are in an enhanced position to do good and seriously influence government policy over the coming years. They must be allowed to get on with that important job.