There is much to be said in favour of localising the commissioning and delivery of criminal justice services, to make them as responsive as possible to local needs, to open up the market and encourage local innovation by VCS and other providers, and to enable local communities to develop greater involvement and confidence in the Criminal Justice System (CJS). However, colleagues north of the border, in Scotland, may have some important advice for us on the dangers as well as the benefits of localism.
I was myself a Social Worker with adult offenders in Aberdeen between 1984 and 1986, employed by Aberdeen City Council to prepare pre-sentence reports for the Sherriff Court, supervise offenders in the community, and provide through care for those serving custodial sentences. The Probation Service had been disbanded in Scotland in 1969, following the publication in 1964 of the Kilbrandon Report. Up to that point the focus of probation work had very much mirrored that in England and Wales, with its strong focus on interpersonal casework, and twin objectives of providing care and control of offenders. In 1969, however, the functions of the Scottish Probation Service were entirely devolved to Local Authorities and work with offenders was carried out within generic local social work departments.
By the mid-1980s this localised, Local Authority-controlled system was ‘falling into neglect’ (McNeill, 2005). Local Authority budgets for work with offenders were not ring-fenced and inevitably fared very badly in competition with those for more ‘deserving’ children’s and older people’s services. Offenders therefore received the most basic level of service and there was no scope to commission a wider set of interventions or to involve the local VCS, other than through the making of referrals. Social work practice with offenders had become highly variable and there was very little consistency between Local Authorities in the ways offender services were managed or delivered. The courts consequently appeared to have little confidence in non-custodial options – I heard one Sherriff speak with derision of “the social work option” – and the Scottish prison population was I think the highest in Europe at that time, relative to the size of the total population.
It was as a consequence of these localised failings that, in 1989, the Scottish Office took the step of ring-fencing the funding to Local Authorities for social work services in the Criminal Justice System, while also establishing a tighter framework of national standards. Since that time, the story of offender services in Scotland has been one of gradual re-centralisation, rather than de-centralisation, and in 2004 the Scottish Executive came very close to establishing a single Correctional Service for Scotland. Instead it opted for a compromise (‘Supporting Safer, Stronger Communities: Scotland’s Criminal Justice Plan’, December 2004) and created a National Offender Management Advisory Body, chaired by the Minister of Justice, with new legislation to oblige Local Authorities and the Scottish Prison Service to work together to manage offenders ‘seamlessly' and to reduce re-offending. April 2007 saw the introduction of eight Criminal Justice Authorities throughout Scotland, to ensure the consistent and effective delivery of criminal justice social work services, each with its own Chief Officer, a number of elected members of Local Authorities, and support staff to carry out its functions.
What are the lessons of this experience for current CJS policy in England and Wales? So far we have heard no suggestion that Local Authorities in England and Wales should take over either the commissioning or delivery arms of Probation Trusts, but the piloting of joined up local budgets and the intention to open up Probation Trusts’ current work to competition do seem likely to move us somewhat closer to the post-1969 Scottish situation. It would be helpful to hear views from Scottish colleagues on these matters, and especially to know how VCS organisations have fared within the more localised Scottish system.