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Criminal Justice in the United Kingdom, 2010 to 2015: Austerity, Policing and Probation

Updated Friday, 3rd July 2015
The second part of Richard Garside's speech to the Open University Scotland event: The coalition years and the Scottish dimension.

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Richard Garside The financial context has been very different to that which prevailed under the Labour government. The coalition government placed deficit reduction – closing the gap between higher government spending and lower government income – as ‘the most urgent issue facing Britain’. The coalition’s chosen approach – often referred to as ‘austerity’ – involved reducing government spending, and doing so quickly.

Five years on, we can say that the UK government has failed to meet its deficit reduction targets. It has, though, had some success in imposing the public spending cuts it claimed were necessary to achieve deficit reduction. Total public expenditure across the United Kingdom grew, in real terms, by only six per cent between 2010 and 2014. This compares with a 28 per cent real terms growth in the four years to 2010.

Across the United Kingdom, spending on criminal justice grew, by around 17 per cent in the four years to 2010. In the four years to 2014 it fell, by around 12 per cent. The cuts were greatest in England and Wales, where the United Kingdom government had direct political control over criminal justice. In Scotland, where the United Kingdom government’s control was the most qualified, the cuts were the slightest.

In England and Wales, Home Office and Ministry of Justice budgets will have fallen by 19 per cent and 29 per cent respectively between 2010 and 2015. The Scottish Spending Review set out real terms cuts to the Scottish Justice department budget of nine percent by 2015, although in practice this did not happen.

What is most striking about the period since 2010 is just how different the responses to austerity have been across the United Kingdom’s three criminal justice jurisdictions. The common pressures of austerity did not, in general, result in common policy approaches.

To illustrate this I am going to talk about two policy areas: policing and probation.


The creation of elected Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) in the 41 police forces outside London has been the most well-known policing development in England and Wales. The role of PCCs in setting local police and crime objectives in their force area and holding the Chief Constable to account has been much discussed. Here I want to draw out the implications of the Commissioner part of their job title: ‘commissioner’ in the sense of the purchaser of services.

The Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government has championed the role of localised commissioning as part of its reform of public services. A White Paper published in July 2011, entitled Open Public Services, stated that commissioning should be decentralised ‘to the lowest appropriate level’, such as community groups, neighbourhood councils, or, and I quote from the White Paper, ‘local authorities and other elected bodies such as Police and Crime Commissioners’.

Police and Crime Commissioners now commission local victims services. Other possible commissioning powers that have been mooted include probation and youth justice. Police and Crime Commissioners remain controversial. Labour has signalled it would like to abolish them if elected. The government likes Police and Crime Commissioners in good part because they fit in with its vision of the local commissioning of public services.

The 43 police force structure in England and Wales has remained unchanged over the last five years. In Scotland, the main development has been the merger of the eight regional police forces into a single national force: Police Scotland. In place of an elected Police and Crime Commissioner, Scotland has a Police Authority, its members appointed by the Scottish Justice Secretary.

Why has Scotland centralised its police forces under a single national structure, indirectly accountable to the Scottish Justice Secretary? For sure, it is in part a response to austerity. But why this structure? Why this response? This reflects Scottish government’s preference for state-based, rather than market-based, approaches to the delivery of public services. It also reflects a shift in power from the Scottish local authorities, that were responsible for the eight regional Scottish police forces, to the central government in Edinburgh.  The Police Scotland reforms therefore represent a dual movement: from local to central control, from democratic to bureaucratic oversight.


I turn now to probation. The coalition government has privatised the majority of the probation service in England and Wales. Twenty one community rehabilitation companies, dominated by private sector organisations, now deliver the bulk of probation work. A rump public sector organisation – the National Probation Service – retains responsibility for those interventions that are difficult to price in the market. This includes supervision of so-called ‘high risk’ clients. These individuals are unattractive to private companies because the costs and complexity of their supervision are potentially open-ended and thus difficult to quantify.

The coalition has had two goes at privatising probation. Its first attempt, when Ken Clarke was Justice Secretary, envisaged a key role for the 35 Probation Trusts to commission probation services at a local level. This was in keeping with its vision of the local commissioning of public services. This approach did not so much as end in failure as never get started.

Its second attempt, initiated by the current Justice Secretary Chris Grayling, has been successful, at least on its own terms. But it is a very different model. The 21 community rehabilitation companies deliver probation interventions under central contracts with the Ministry of Justice. Ken Clarke’s original vision of a diverse network of local probation marketplaces has been supplanted by a monolithic, centralised market in which a single buyer – the Ministry of Justice – contracts with a small number of providers.

The approach in Scotland has been very different. Probation work in Scotland sits within social service departments, rather than as a separate criminal justice agency, and is coordinated at a regional level through eight local government-dominated Community Justice Authorities.

Under current plans these Authorities are to be abolished; their coordination work dissolving downwards into the 32 Community Planning Partnerships, which operate at a local authority level in Scotland coordinating the delivery of a range of public services. Overseeing and guiding this work will be a new statutory national body: Community Justice Scotland.

In contrast to the centralising moves of Police Scotland, we can see here a decentralising move in relation to probation work, albeit with potentially firmer central oversight through Community Justice Scotland. In comparison with the market-based approach in England and Wales, the Scottish government is placing state and public bodies at the heart of the planning and delivery of community supervision. This is very much in keeping with the Scottish government’s current commitment to placing the state, not the market, at the heart of public service planning and delivery. It is a very different approach to that adopted by the coalition government in England and Wales.

In conclusion

There is a lot more in the full report. I hope that I have given you a flavour of it here. In conclusion we can say that in England and Wales, the government signalled its intention of deepening market mechanisms in the operation and delivery of public services. It proposed the greater application of market forces in probation-related work. Local Police and Crime Commissioners would be responsible for decisions on police budgets and the procurement of a range of police- and crime-related services.

In Scotland, the government signalled an approach that placed the state, rather than the market, at the centre of criminal justice changes. The regional police forces, accountable to Scotland’s local authorities, were replaced with a national police force accountable to the Scottish Government. Rather than outsourcing the delivery of prison- and community-based punishment and supervision to private companies, we find a drive to coordinate delivery through public sector and local government institutions, overseen by the national government.

With another parliament of austerity likely, whichever party or parties form the United Kingdom government following the May 2015 General Election, the role of the dull compulsion to cut and trim will continue to make itself felt across the United Kingdom’s three jurisdictions. The pattern of convergence and divergence in criminal justice policy-making is likely to continue.

Whether such convergences and divergences are a good or bad thing is something that we may want to consider today. There are certainly lessons, for all three jurisdictions, from the paths taken in each. But transfer of policy solutions from one jurisdiction to another – for instance, the adoption of a Police Scotland model in England and Wales, or the application of market processes to probation in Scotland – will always tend towards modification and adaptation at most. The distinctive approaches to criminal justice pursued in England, Wales and Scotland are a response to specific challenges in those jurisdiction. They also reflect underlying governing priorities, philosophies, ideologies and imperatives. Such specificities are not replicable across what remain very different jurisdictions.

Next: Interesting Times for Scotland


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