The last month or so has been a dizzying time for anyone trying to keep up with criminal justice policy. The Transforming Rehabilitation competition, Secretary of State Chris Grayling’s flagship agenda to bring new providers into probation services, finally opened on September 19th, exactly in the gap between the Liberal Democrat and Labour Party Conferences.
In early October, those returning from the Conservative Party Conference were treated to a Cabinet reshuffle only a few days later, in which junior justice minister Helen Grant was moved to a new role promoting sport and tourism. Liberal Democrat peer Lord McNally will take over her role with women offenders, and rising Conservative star Shailesh Vara has been given the nod to pick up some of her other responsibilities.
Then, just as we were getting our breath back, the long-awaited documents outlining the future of services to women offenders were released on 25th October. These consist of the Government’s response to the recent Justice Committee inquiry, to which Clinks gave evidence, into what progress had been made since the Corston Review, and the review of the women’s custodial estate. Clinks will issue a briefing to members shortly.
And, alongside all this, another set of plans has been chugging along in the background that could have even more serious consequences for the Voluntary, Community and Social Enterprise (VCSE) Sector. The Government’s Lobbying Bill, which has provoked ire from directions as far apart as trade unions and the Countryside Alliance, aims to restrict the campaigning activity of non-party organisations in the run-up to elections, to ensure that they are not abusing their position by backing specific candidates or parties.
But, according to its many critics, the Bill is so broad and complex that it may end up restricting almost any engagement with politics by voluntary and community groups, including small and local ones. Even where campaigns are purely about the issues, are in no way directive about how people should vote, and are wholly in line with an organisation’s aims and objectives, some say they may end up being caught in a new and onerous system of regulation.
Anyone in doubt that this is a particular issue for VCSE organisations working with offenders should ask themselves what criminal justice would look like today without the campaigning and scrutiny work of our Sector, from big national players like the Prison Reform Trust and the Howard League for Penal Reform to smaller community-based ones. Indeed, it is only through services and advocacy groups that politicians can engage systematically with the offender experience at all, given that so many service users’ lives lack the stability required to register and vote - and those in prison are explicitly prevented from doing so. Add in a media that can be hostile to any intervention that smacks of being “soft on crime”, and it becomes clear how essential a voice we have, and how devastating to justice its loss would be.
And if this year’s Party Conferences were anything to go by, the criminal justice debate is already narrowing. Transforming Rehabilitation without doubt heralds the most significant changes in the treatment of offenders we’re likely to see for a long time; discussion of its likely impact is not just useful, but vital. Yet in Glasgow, Brighton and Manchester this autumn it was in danger of absorbing bigger questions around the philosophy, purpose and direction of the justice system completely - when in fact it is only part of the answer.
Honourable exceptions include the Howard League’s UR Boss project for their lively and occasionally confrontational events in which young people with experience of criminal justice appeared on panels with politicians, and CSAN (Caritas Social Action Network) for wading boldly into the very murky waters of the prisoner voting ban.
But it was difficult to come away from events with titles as all-encompassing as “The Future of the Criminal Justice System”, in which the only subject for discussion was the rights and wrongs of privatisation, and not feel that something was missing.
This is not just the responsibility of politicians, but of all stakeholders: journalists, activists and anyone else with an interest in fair, effective justice that promotes good practice, empowers communities and puts as many offenders as possible on the path to desistance from crime. Since the Lobbying Bill is due to come into effect in time for the 2015 election, Clinks will be joining the efforts of those working to ensure that our Sector can be part of this conversation without fear or favour, now and for many years to come.
UPDATE: During committee stage on 5th November 2013, the Government offered a five week period of consultation on the relevant parts of the Lobbying Bill. Clinks will update Members on any key developments.