Back in 2014, a meeting was convened for all the organisations bidding to win the contract to run the Greater Manchester Community Rehabilitation Company (CRC). I was working for one of those bidders then and two moments remain in my memory. The first was the joint introduction from the current interim Mayor, Tony Lloyd, and the then Chief Constable, Sir Peter Fahy. ‘Our aim’, they said, ‘is to make Greater Manchester a more prosperous place.’
Nothing about criminal justice, commissioning structures or contracts. The message was clear: if you want to work here you have to be part of a bigger, broader objective, and that objective is about the quality of life for people who live here.
The second memory is that we met representatives from every borough, some directly involved with criminal justice and some not. We asked everyone the same question: ‘What mustn’t we break?’ And the same answer came back: ‘The relationships we have built over the last few years and the ways we have learned to work together.’
So it was fascinating to hear George Osborne announce a potential devolution of criminal justice commissioning to Greater Manchester in last week’s budget.
The reaction from the Ministry of Justice suggested this is just one of the many aspects of reform where the detail has yet to be worked through, but there are tantalising glimpses of a change which might turn out to be the most significant of the many hares that Michael Gove has set running so far.
The first interesting thing about Manchester is that the roles of Mayor and Police and Crime Commissioner are merged.
So one potential local turf war for commissioning control is avoided. But the scope for a different turf war – local vs. central – explicitly acknowledged in the bland statement that the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) will ‘take on a greater role in the commissioning of offender management services, alongside the National Offender Management Service (NOMS), to allow more local flexibility, innovation and better coordination with other local services including healthcare and accommodation’.
It will be interesting to see the detail of what ‘alongside’ comes to mean, but a memorandum of understanding between the GMCA, NOMS and the local CRC (owned by Interserve) is promised for as early as April this year.
The next big hint about future direction is that a more autonomous prison set-up in the region will get a bigger say over commissioning education provision, this time alongside the GMCA, ‘government’, and the CRC. Next the GMCA is offered a look in on the planning for a new prison to serve Manchester, and the design, commissioning and delivery of youth justice services, including new custodial provision in small institutions, is put in the mix too. For the first time in the announcement, funding is mentioned specifically, perhaps holding out the prospect of cash moving from the Youth Justice Board to the GMCA.
Tagging, victim services and court restructuring follow, all with greater local influence promised over planning, before perhaps the major surprise, which is a willingness to consider devolving to the GMCA the budgets for imprisoning women, young offenders and adult men sentenced to less than two years. This is properly radical stuff, both for the amount of money potentially involved and for the implication that decisions on what type of custodial provision to purchase – and how much of it – might be taken locally not centrally.
It has been a truism for many years that imprisonment is a ‘free good’ so far as the agencies responsible for creating the demand for it are concerned. Periodically, there have been doomed proposals to ‘charge’ courts for the sentences they pass, for example. But that debate fades into insignificance if the same body responsible for measures that might genuinely reduce demand at source – better mental health care, state parenting, accommodation and education, as well as good informal resolution and effective community penalties – might actually also bear the cost of the imprisonment that we know results from their failure.
As matters stand, if Manchester achieves its aim of a more prosperous society, with a quality of life marked out by less crime and more effective ways of dealing with it when it does occur, the financial benefit of any reduction in the need for prison places disappears straight into the Ministry of Justice. But with a devolved custodial budget, that saving could be reinvested, or simply returned to local taxpayers.
The challenges of moulding a genuinely devolved response from the current commissioning mish-mash of central and local, elected and unelected, is immense.
In the short paper that explains the budget’s announcement on this, no fewer than 12 different agencies or bodies are mentioned and they will all have to change the way they work and think. In reality, the number is probably a good deal higher than that. But the prize – innovative, joined up, properly responsive services – might just allow the more efficient and effective approach to criminal justice which layers of centrally contracted delivery have failed to create. Making the cost of imprisonment transparent locally is the first step to a rational debate about whether it really represents the most sensible way to spend all that money.