The intensity of privatisation in the UK during the current government’s tenure has reached a level not witnessed for decades. Certain areas of health care, the postal service and banking amongst many others have witnessed outsourcing or selling-off in highly controversial circumstances. However, the outsourcing of basic matters of security and justice to private bidders has revealed a new level of ambition.
It is a general point of consensus amongst legal academics and lawyers that the most fundamental purpose of the state is to ensure the security and protection of its citizens. That is the principle reason for the existence and continuance of the nation-state. Clearly, how this result is achieved is debatable, and history has witnessed systems of government ranging from repressive regimes to liberal democracies and everything else in between. Nevertheless, the past several years have witnessed extraordinary and unprecedented plans for the outsourcing of many aspects within the security and criminal justice system. Contracts worth £450 million have been offered to the private sector to manage the probation service in the UK, which is responsible for overseeing low and medium risk offenders within the country. Rather predictably, and in line with most other areas of privatisation in recent years, senior figureheads in the respective structures have voiced their opposition. Ian Lawrence, the leader of the National Association of Probation Officers, has boldly stated, "If it’s not bad enough that this Government doesn't care about jobs, professionalism and people’s livelihoods, not caring about public safety is a downright disgrace and a total failure on their part to fulfill their duty to society."
Furthermore, it is apparent that security companies G4S and Serco will be allowed to bid for such contracts. This is the same G4S that demonstrated their ability (or lack of) to manage the significant security project at the 2012 London Olympics. This is the same Serco andG4S that have both been overcharging for electronic tags for offenders to the tune of tens of millions of pounds. This is also the same Serco and G4S that are responsible for running two prisons, both awarded the lowest score of 1 (out of 4) in a recent performance rating conducted by the Ministry of Justice. The ranking thus declared that the prisons' "Overall Performance is of serious concern’.
This latest move to introduce privatisation into the probation service follows similar moves earlier in the life of this Government, which have had an enormous impact upon justice. Earlier this year, Lord Judge (well-fated with a surname like that), the most senior judge in England and Wales, warned the Justice Secretary Chris Grayling MP about Government plans to introduce competition into the courts and tribunals. The plans mostly concerned administrative functions, but nevertheless, Maura McGowan QC, chairman of the Bar Council, said the plan was “extraordinary and fundamental”.
Elsewhere, legal aid cuts have been imposed throughout the justice quarter. This has been widely condemned by jurists and lawyers alike who consider that the quality of legal counsel and advice could be severely damaged. On an encouraging note however, the Ministry of Justice and the Government were forced to u-turn over plans to cut legal aid by offering contracts to the lowest bidders. However, the effects of legal aids cuts are still biting throughout the legal sector in the UK.
Similarly, in July 2013, fees were introduced into the application process when appealing to the employment tribunals in the UK. In a helpful graph, it is apparent and unsurprising that there has been a significant drop in applications to the tribunals for individual claims since the fees were introduced.
Evidently, far-reaching reforms have swept throughout every aspect of life in modern Britain. Areas of security and justice have not been immune from such significant changes. Finally, one of the most recent developments came mid-November. On the 19th of this month, it was revealed that the Ministry of Justice had rejected an offer from G4S of £24.1 million for the over-charging of tagging offenders mentioned earlier. Such is the scandal of private companies over-charging that Keith Vaz MP, Chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee, has said that ‘every G4S contract with the government needs to be reviewed immediately, and they should be banned from bidding for any more.’
Clearly, the justice and security systems in the UK are experiencing a monumental period of change in the age of austerity and privatisation. The issue of outsourcing matters of basic state security and justice is a mammoth ambition, and it is deeply concerning that private companies which have been awarded such significant contracts are conducting themselves unacceptably. If further privatisation is to occur, such companies will have to work hard to restore their credibility not only to ministers, but most importantly to tax-payers.
Ben Stanford is a doctoral candidate at the University of Bedfordshire studying Terrorism and Human Rights.