The Chancellor of the Exchequer today set out the Ministry of Justice’s budget for the next parliament, including major ‘efficiency savings’ and reforms to the prison system. Commentators have expressed concern that the reforms will harm women, increase prison populations, and will not address the fundamental failings of the prison system.
In his autumn statement, George Osbourne announced plans to reduce prison running costs by £80 million a year. Its main proposals include building nine modern prisons, funded by selling off ‘ageing, inefficient prisons on prime real estate’, and investment in video conferencing facilities that will allow up to 90,000 cases to be heard from prisons instead of courts. The government also announced investment in prison safety, including mobile phone blocking technology and body scanners.
The government claimed that the reforms will ‘reduce reoffending through more effective rehabilitation’ and combat organized crime in prison. Michael Gove, the Justice Secretary, stated that the reforms are part of a ‘one nation’ justice policy focused on rehabilitation.
However, commentators were sceptical. Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, feared that ‘prison building plans may distract from cutting [the] use of prison and making jails work better’. Crook criticized the government’s approach to rehabilitation and called for improvements in staffing and claimed that closing Royal Holloway prison meant that ‘women prisoners will be significantly further away from their children and families’. Crook concluded that ‘investing £1.3 billion in [a] prison building programme is risky’ and could lead to a ‘population explosion’.
The government also set out proposals to digitise courts and tribunals. Modernisation of the court system has been welcomed, however, the Bar Council described the planned 50% cuts to the MoJ’s administrative budget and overall resource savings of 15% as a ‘big concern’.
In addition, the government stated that it will ‘look at changes to court fees’, however, it did not provide any further details. Plans to review court fees follow wide-spread criticism of court fees and a report by the Justice Select Committee that called for the criminal courts charge to be scrapped.