The result of the EU referendum last month seemed to take most people by surprise. The seismic shifts that have taken place in our political landscape in such a short space of time are testament to that; no one really expected a “leave” vote and no one expected we would have a new prime minister in short order.
The advance of the new PM and with a new Secretary of State for Justice and ministerial team means change will come, though what, when and how is unclear. Yet we can, perhaps, get a flavour of what may come by looking at the overall direction of travel this government has already begun.
In recent weeks, an agreement has been signed between the Ministry of Justice and the acting mayor and PCC for Greater Manchester, which seeks to offer more local control (devolution) over areas of criminal justice and offender management, previously reserved for central government. Local courts, prisons, rehabilitation and probation services are all to be included in the deal, one which the mayor says will involve not simply devolution of powers, but transformation of services.
The deal struck will see the newly elected mayor (from April 2017), the MOJ, the National Offender Management Service, Youth Justice Board and other partner agencies commit to the devolution of these new powers and this broad approach is likely to continue under the new administration; after all, in many respects, the introduction of devolved powers to police and crime commissioners can, in many ways, be seen as the baby of the new PM from her previous incarnation as home secretary.
Local accountability is in so many ways a positive development; it helps build confidence in services delivered in a locality; it affords a degree of influence and responsiveness that may not always be apparent when services are run and directed from the centre; and it offers the opportunity to be nimbler in approaching problems and solutions and faster decision making, again not always noticeable when things are decided at a distance.
It is this potential devolving of powers over the courts and linked services that is beginning to exercise minds and voices across a range of organisations. A serious concern raised in a recent report by the National Audit Office noted that Manchester Crown Court had the worst rate for trial effectiveness in the country and asked how devolution of powers might impact on this, so perhaps we need to proceed with caution.
At the same time, the Ministry of Justice is consulting on the potential devolution of funding for witness services to local police and crime commissioners. This would follow on from the devolution of funding for victim services in the last parliament.
There is no doubt that services for witnesses are best served, planned and delivered by virtue of sustainable longer term funding, something that all funders, local and central, find difficult to achieve. Despite longer term funding providing consistency, better to afford effective assessment of services, and despite it mitigating the need for often costly procurement processes, it is not always easy to deliver consistency even under a national funding arrangement – it takes commitment, planning and good performance management. It is legitimate to ask if this desirable (many argue essential) outcome,becomes even more elusive under a more localised approach to funding and it isn’t, on the surface, easy to see how a more localised approach to the funding of services for witnesses will assist in these aims.
Each witness has unique needs but is subject to (in theory) the same due process wherever they live. And each one is an integral part of the process of delivering justice. So we may ask how a potentially piecemeal approach to witness support services might meet the need for greater consistency in the delivery of services or offer a better chance of establishing meaningful and deliverable agreements with key stakeholders: judiciary, the CPS, HMCTS and, not least, the Ministry of Justice.
Of course, that’s not to say that a more localised approach to funding (and delivery of justice) has little to commend it. It may well offer the chance to target resources (which are scarce) where they are most needed locally and offer the chance to prioritise future support needs. And local accountability of itself is a good thing, offering people a greater say in the decision making process and promoting the benefits of engagement.
In a shifting landscape, the vital thing is that the debate focuses on people and how best their needs are met.