Today Grayling completes this week’s hatrick of wrong-headed decisions that will set back the justice system for years. First he announced that the MoJ was beginning feasibility work on building a new prison that would hold more than 2,000 prisoners. Jack Straw had the same idea in 2009, but rapidly dropped it when it was criticised for uncontrollable cost, safety risks, control issues, difficulties of focusing on rehabilitation, and evidence from abroad that large prisons were not effective. Now Grayling is reviving the idea, though none of the objections voiced so strongly in 2009, including by Cameron and his then justice secretary, have any less force today than they did then. Depressingly, it seems that Grayling is falling in behind Michael Howard’s discredited idea that ‘prison works’. Yet all the evidence shows it doesn’t: keeping the current 83,600 prisoners behind bars costs £45,000 on average for every prisoner, a total of £3.8bn a year. But almost half re-offend within a year, and the NAO estimates that the cost of re-offending by recently released prisoners could be as high as £13bn.
Then Grayling announced that he was privatising the probation service, though he was keeping part of it in place to deal with the more difficult cases – exactly the same wheeze used by the Tories to entice choosey private contractors into outsourced NHS functions and welfare to work programmes. He parades charities and voluntary bodies for taking over some of the probation work, but it’s all too likely that big private contractors like G4S, Serco and Capita will hoover up most of the contracts with the same malign failures we saw at the Olympics and the allegedly corrupt A4E fiddling the welfare to work figures. None of these bodies hungry for profits can remotely match the professionalism of the current probation officers.
Then today Grayling has fired the first shots in a renewed campaign to cut legal aid yet further. Already the Tories have abolished legal aid for ‘social’ cases, even if people are at risk of losing their homes or livelihoods. Employees can no longer get legal aid to challenge unfair dismissal or harassment. Evicitions by private landlords have risen by 17% over the last year, yet the Tory legal aid bill earlier this year abolished legal aid for tenants. That bill has already removed 600,000 persons currently using legal advice from continuing to have access to it. There is no no legal aid even in child custody battles between separated parents. Fewer victims of domestic violence can now bring their abusers to court because ‘objective evidence’ is now required, and medical evidence from A&E, GPs or a women’s refuge is not enough.
Despite this damning evidence, Grayling still has the gall to say today: “We cannot avoid taking a long hard look at legal aid. How much expertise can we afford to pay for?” Ominous words coming from a Tory like him.