Parliament’s most powerful watchdog yesterday published a comprehensive account of the failure of the MoJ to get a grip on ‘unprecedented’ pressures and failures of the justice system.
So great is the backlog of cases in the criminal courts (most of which predates COVID), that cases are now being listed for 2 years’ time. But, says the PAC, MoJ’ s court ‘transformation’ programme, which is failing to deliver promised savings, lacks any clear end point and isn’t supported by adequate information. Barristers and others at the sharp end report on a system now heavily dependent on virtual hearings, which often breaks down, and is disadvantaging the most vulnerable.
The MoJ has chosen to vastly increase prisoner numbers, in any already badly overcrowded system, made more oppressive and unsafe by COVID. But are hugely ambitious prisons building programme (something at which MoJ has repeatedly failed in the last decade) isn’t funded and the growing backlog of essential maintenance may derail it.
MoJ is managing 15 major change programmes over every aspect of its work yet cannot explain how it is managing the extraordinary risks this poses, given its past record of failure on nearly every major programme in the past decade.
There is no realistic basis for funding MoJ beyond April 2022, if that, even though the costs of increasing police numbers, and tackling court backlogs, and increasing sentence lengths are enormous, and the probation and prison service are under enormous stress already.
(The PAC might have added that the criminal legal aid system is falling apart, cut by a third since 2010 and many firms ceasing to take the business.)
The PAC goes on to express concern about the pressures on probation and prison staff: ‘Unacceptable’ Buckland is content to call them ‘heroes’, and then hide behind their heroism, while cynically allowing those pressures to increase.
None of this however is new. Sadly, it has all been obvious for years. What is new is the dawning realisation that for a Government that is sufficiently shameless – and Johnson is a man born deformed, without the capacity for shame – it is perfectly possible just to ignore these things. To the denunciation of Commons Committees or the NAO or well informed reform groups or professional bodies or court findings of unlawful or improper behaviour or exposure by the one or two bits of the press not rabidly tory, just maintain a studied indifference. Because, in our elective dictatorship, none of these critics have any power. If you have a majority in the Commons and those of your MPs who want you out arent ready yet, tthere are no consequences for failure, however gross. One might call it the Grayling Conundrum.
‘Unacceptable’ Buckland doesn’t even need to reply, any more than his Cabinet colleagues do. Our democratic system is toothless, between elections (and the Government has plans to fix those).
I received my council tax bill today. As always, it is impenetrable. In terms of transparency, clarity and accountability, it rivals the political and legal structure of the late medieval Holy Roman Empire.
It’s headed ‘Oxford City Council’ and says I must them pay £2599.99. Except hardly any of it is for them. Most of it is for the County Council; for some reason, this as shown as 2 separate amounts. The larger amount is footnoted ‘The council tax attributed to Oxfordshire County Council includes a precept to fund adult social care, visit www.oxford.gov.uk/counciltax. No, Won’t. Shan’t. Just explain right here and now, in English (how many people know what a ‘precept’ is – sounds like something out of Trollope.) Likewise, there are two amounts for the City Council, one marked ‘special expenses. Councillors’ sauna? I think we should be told. But we aren’t. And some is for ‘PCC for Thames Valley’. Probably most people can guess the missing word here is ‘Police’. But why not just say so? (Or what a PCC is. My wife, not unreasonably, thought it must be the parish council.)
Inside is a note explaining that the amount I’m required to pay is based on the value of my house. Using values dating from 1991. That might as well be contemporary with the Holy Roman Empire.
Inside also are leaflets from the County Council and PCC explaining how they spend the money: The City doesn’t think I need bother myself with that, though there is a nice leaflet about waste disposal, a subject that interests me hugely. I too would like to see less waste.
The County Council explain that they spend £828.9m ‘excluding schools (£663.7m)”. It does not explain why schools are excluded, and later on tells me that, despite having excluded schools, they do actually spend £192.4m on ‘maintained schools’, leaving the average reader in the dark about where money comes from whom schools and who spends what on which schools. (They also tell me that they too spend money on waste, as well as the City. Isn’t that duplication…wasteful?)
As to Business Rates – how they are set, how they are divvied up, locally and nationally…a mystery within a mystery, for advanced students only (and anyway it changes every year or so). Yet it is something that has a powerful influence on councils’ thinking about development.
The most opaque leaflet is by the Police and Crime Commissioner who cover two counties besides Oxfordshire. It’s entirely unclear who takes what decisions. He says the Government have set ‘the police grant’ and told him what he should raise locally which he then did. So, who actually decided the budget? Income is shown as coming from, amongst other things ‘CLG Formula Grant’. One day, maybe, we’ll welcome out the shadows the group known only as ‘CLG’. One of the oddest things in the leaflet is that it’s unclear whether it’s the CPP or TVP talking. ” The police funding settlement enables us to invest to expand our capabilities…” One has the sense that the PCC and TVP are really one outfit. Well, that wasn’t the idea.
But don’t worry, it’s all democratic. The PCC asked …well, he asked some people and 2,814 of them, said yes, increase the precept. As the Government told you to do. Of course, that leaves just a million citizens not having any say. Democracy, the Tory way.
hope that’s all clear. Because that believe it or not is the bit that’s above the water. Below are the murky depths. To an extent that is staggering, in recent years we have seen huge amounts of power and public money and decision making channelled into unelected, sometimes highly secretive bodies, some with councillors on them, some not, some packed with vested interests such as developers and landowners (I am endebted to an excellent analysis by a group of former council staff who campaign for great transparency and clarity in local government finance, here)
Some of these bodies ‘consult’ in random and often obviously inadequate ways, some never do. They don’t publish their papers or their minutes. You can’t meet them and talk to them, other than through councillors who may not themselves have any access. Yet (or maybe ‘therefore’) Government increasingly prefers to work through them. And increasingly huge planning decisions and huge amounts of money are the province of these groups, not the elected local authorities. And decisions made by these bodies tightly shape and constrain decisions taken by Councils on their own spending.
Then we have the current vogue for bidding funds, where Government hands out money for certain specific purposes, Council’s bid for them, and most of the money goes to Tory-run councils. Another American institution imported by our mini-Trump: ‘pork barrel politics’.
A true and uptodate picture of what public money is being spent by whom in Oxfordshire would be fascinating. But it doesn’t exist.
What is so odd about the complete lack of interest by these councils in explaining anything of this to those who pay them and who consume their services, is that they have a tremendously important story to tell, and one which won’t be told by anyone else. Such as. Since 2010, central Government has cut funding for local authorities far more deeply than its own spending. Central Government has handed responsibilities to local government but without adequate funding for them. Central Government can spend whatever it likes and just borrow, local government cannot borrow and is very tightly restricted in its ability to increase taxation. Due to COVID, local government revenues have slumped, yet demand for services has soared.
You might think that local authorities would be desperate to convey this story to residents. Not a bit of it. I’ve never seen any effort to do so from either County or City Council. It is an extraordinary own goal.
Does any of this matter? Don’t normal people just open their tax bill, grumble a bit and then pay up? Who cares what it’s for, and who spends it?
I passionately believe it does matter. In fact, it matters today more than ever. Because confidence and trust in authority is lower than ever. Because we are at the start of an economic and fiscal crisis unprecedented in many generations. Because the gap between what people would like to see in terms of local services and what can be afforded is enormous, and growing.
If we don’t give ordinary people basic information about how the financing of local government works, the pressures on it, what is being funded and what has to be left out, we open the way to disinformation, alienation, rumour, misunderstanding – which I see every time I look at the comments on the Oxford Mail website. We are creating the conditions for a breakdown in civic society.
Now I suspect that if I took councillors or council officers to task for their quite extraordinary failure to explain their finances publicly, they’d say: oh, it’s so complicated, you can’t expect the average citizen to understand.
I utterly disagree - on the basis of a career in public finance myself. Failure to explain, to someone who’d like to understand, is ALWAYS, ALWAYS the failure of the explainer, a failure of their understanding of their duty ss officials, a failure of their understanding of communication, of language itself. It IS possible. It’s just in the self-absorption way of authority, everywhere, that it just can’t be bothered.
As proof of that I offer two observations, one about councillors, the other about myself:
This budget does not really look far ahead and indeed, given COVID and Brexit, it is hard to do so. But the figures suggest a lot pain ahead for public services.
Certainly for MoJ, remarkably given only a single sentence in the Red Book, and no increase in underlying funding at all in 2021-22 (ie excluding temporary COVID-related funding for Nightingale Courts etc). Given the parlous state of legal aid, the enormous backlog of court cases (now being listed for hearing in 2023!), the continuing crisis in prisons (rates of self harm and assaults on harm still around twice what they were pre austerity, and a surge in numbers inevitable as the backlog of cases is tackled, never mind Johnson's plans for increasing the prison population), there seems little scope for repairing the damage done to every part of the justice system since 2010. Meanwhile MoJ makes the most of doling out penny packets for this or that specialised need.
For a Department which for years has been quite unable to live within its means, it's a poor outlook.
And yet, with different policies, this is the one department which could do more with less, if we were prepared to acknowledge the pointlessness of our addiction to ever-increasing incarceration.
I was formerly Finance Director of the Prison Service and then Director of the National Offender Management Service responsible for competition. I also worked in the NHS and an IT company. I later worked for two outsourcing companies.
Click below to receive regular updates