PCS is calling on MPs to restore prison staffing levels to pre-austerity levels and put measures in place to help reduce reoffending and protect access to justice as the prisons and courts bill receives its second reading in parliament today (20 March).
The bill was introduced just as PCS launched its Alternative Vision for Justice report which warned of the impact of austerity on justice – both on the staff working within the sector and the wider public that are caught up in an increasingly not-fit-for-purpose system.
The bill seeks to build into legislation the purpose of prisons to protect the public and re-habilitate offenders to lead law abiding and useful lives while in prisons and after release.
While this is welcome we argue that it can only be achieved by investing to restore pre-austerity staffing levels and decent living accommodation for prisoners.
Prior to the austerity measures put in place by the Conservative-led government, from 2000-2009 prisons were in a stable and improving state. The re-conviction rate for adult offenders in 2009 was 39%, a fall of 3.7% since 2000. In 2009, the frequency re-conviction rate was 140.5 offences for 100 offenders, a fall of 24% since 2000.
While 7,000 prison officer grade staff have been lost since 2010, the same number of non-officer grade staff are also being cut. The recruitment of 2,500 officer-grade staff is a drop in the ocean compared to what is needed to ensure our prisons are once again safe, decent and secure. With the new officers not expected to be in place until 2018, and given the poor retention rates, this is likely to prolong the period of severe understaffing for some time.
Threats to access to justice
We are concerned that plans to close many of the remaining courts, the lessening of judicial oversight, reliance on virtual courts, and a shift from local justice delivery to just 5 or 6 contact centres, are being driven by cost cutting rather than a genuine desire to improve access to justice.
Digital working is at the heart of the government’s proposals and we have repeatedly raised concerns regarding the reliability and fitness for purpose of IT used in courts. Members tell us that new equipment
is unreliable, costly and have increased the time it takes to deal with cases.
A recent TUC study found that only 4% of staff agreed that IT in courts works effectively.
We are raising concerns that the further use of virtual courts will mean that vulnerable people may come under pressure to have offences tried over video link. Less articulate individuals and those with hearing, sight or mental health issues could be at a significant disadvantage and unable to adequately express their difficulties or put forward their defence.
PCS wants to see adequate investment made to improve digital services, but argue that embracing technology in courts should not come at the expense of a fair trial.
Personal injury claim reforms
We are concerned that a perceived need to clamp down on bogus whiplash claims are being used as an excuse to clampdown on all personal injury claims, whether they result from an accident on the road or in the workplace.
These so-called whiplash reforms will result in hundreds of thousands of injured people losing out on free legal advice while handing extra profits to multinational insurance companies.
We responded to the government consultation on these changes earlier this year and encourage members to support the campaign against these further attacks on access to justice. Find out more by visiting the Feeding Fat Cats website.