Will Tanner is a Researcher at the independent, non-party thinktank Reform, whose new report, Doing it justice, is available here.
At noon today the Prime Minister will deliver a speech on criminal justice reform, his first since taking office in May 2010. The timing is opportune. At the mid-point in the Parliament, police and criminal justice services face a crucial juncture.
The Prime Minister’s intervention comes just one month before one of the most significant reforms to local criminal justice since the establishment of the Metropolitan Police in 1829; the election of 41 Police and Crime Commissioners on 15 November. For the first time, local policing will be accountable to the communities that bear the costs of crime, not the whim or will of Whitehall.
Yet as they stand the Government’s reforms risk being discredited before they have even begun. Police and Crime Commissioners will be elected with responsibility and budgetary control over just policing, only one of many agencies involved in the local fight against crime, and yet be accountable for crime outcomes as a whole. Without powers over prisons and probation, PCCs will be unable to influence the high reoffending rates that contribute so greatly to local crime; without oversight of ambulance or fire and rescue they will be unable to join up emergency services to improve response times and deliver more preventative services to stop crimes from happening in the first place. Whoever the public elects will be inherently limited in their ability to fulfill their election manifestos as a result.
The Government has already hinted at a wider role for PCCs. In the Swift and Sure White Paper, Ministers heralded the potential of PCCs to transform criminal justice “from an uncoordinated and fragmented system into a seamless and efficient service”, possibly through commissioning other services like probation and youth offending teams. In his speech, the Prime Minister should put bones on these ideas and go much further besides.
As new Reform research shows, the most successful criminal justice organisations integrate services to deliver a better service to communities and end-to-end rehabilitation for offenders. In Glasgow, joint working between police, local government and health services within the Violence Reduction Unit has transformed a city previously blighted by violent gang crime. By working together to target gang members, agencies have reduced violent crime by 38 per cent since 2006 and improved police detection rates by a fifth. Serious assaults have fallen by 42 per cent and murders have fallen by nearly a third. In Warwickshire, a similar approach has been used to improve services for victims and the community. The creation of two Justice Centres has brought police, prisons, courts, youth offending teams and victim support under the same roof, delivering a more coordinated service and higher satisfaction for users. Police and Crime Commissioners, as a single point of accountability and budgetary control, offer a vehicle to make this type of approach the rule, rather than the exception.
There is another, even more pressing, imperative for the criminal justice system: austerity. Police and justice services are currently halfway through one of the most stringent Spending Reviews in their history, in which the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice must reduce real terms spending by 23 per cent each by 2014-15. Yet even as they reduce spending by a fifth by 2015, services are facing up to the prospect of further cuts thereafter. If healthcare spending is protected in line with GDP, as seems likely, criminal justice spending will fall by a further 3.4 per cent a year between 2014-15 and 2016-17. As Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and the National Audit Office have shown, the “burning platform” of cuts is already driving innovation and better value for money, but efficiencies are time-limited and new models of delivery will be needed to ensure the fiscal sustainability in the future.
With wider powers, PCCs would be well placed to achieve such sustainability. Already joint emergency control centres, such as the Tri-Service centre in Gloucestershire, are reducing costs while improving responsiveness. Leading fire services such as Greater Manchester have shown how to reduce costs and make communities safer at the same time, by shifting their resources into fire prevention. The achievement of lower crime and greater safety will enable sustainable reductions in spending, in particular on costly prison places. Commissioners would have a clear incentive to save money since they will be able to pass on savings to their electorates through reductions in the precept portion of local council tax.
Such integrated models could be complimented by more creative commissioning and greater use of alternative providers, including private companies. The success of private provision in prisons and police support should give candidates confidence to extend competition elsewhere, for example to fire and rescue, ambulance services and probation. In the UK, private companies already provide fire and rescue services, for example at airports. Privately managed prisons, such as HMP Parc and HMP Doncaster, have shown the value of private sector expertise in integrating through-the-gate services to improve prisoner resettlement and reduce reoffending. Those PCC candidates who have rejected the use of the private sector before they even take office may find themselves unable to effect real change when they are elected.
Police and Crime Commissioners are a significant step in the right direction, but they risk losing the confidence of the public if they do not have the tools to effectively address the causes of crime. Of the 43 force areas, more than half have similar boundaries to local probation and fire and rescue authorities, meaning there is already a ready-made framework for integration and local accountability that could be extended to remaining areas with minimal restructuring. If the Government is serious about criminal justice reform, it should take this flagship reform to its logical, local conclusion and devolve power and budgets for all criminal justice and emergency services to PCCs.