The replacement of Ken Clarke with Chris Grayling as Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice at the last Cabinet reshuffle in September 2012 was greeted by the Conservative grassroots as signalling a major shift in the Government’s justice policy.   And yet, despite a clear change of tone since taking the reins at the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), Grayling is broadly intent on implementing the reforms that remain from the original plans set out by his predecessor in 2010.

The MoJ, under both Clarke and Grayling, has made solid progress towards achieving most of the objectives it set out in the Programme for Government, with four out of nine of its major pledges met. The pledges themselves range from the specific – such as setting up 15 new rape crisis centres by 2015 – to the more general, such as conducting reviews of legal aid and sentencing.

Clarke came into office in 2010 proclaiming the need for a ‘rehabilitation revolution’, and criticised the prison sentencing record of governments of both parties over the past 20 years.  His observation that ‘just banging up more and more people for longer without actively seeking to change them is what you would expect of Victorian England’ was never likely to endear him to the tabloids.  Taking them on directly through his claim that Labour had pursued prison policy ‘with a cheque book in one hand and the Daily Mail in the other’ ensured that Clarke would be kept in the crosshairs of the right-wing press for as long as he remained in the post.

With the tabloid pressure rising, Downing Street withdrew its support for Clarke’s intention to increase the maximum discount for early guilty pleas from 33% to 50% in an attempt to reduce the annual demand for prison places by 6,000.  Though this was seen as a major blow to the Secretary of State, figures published at the start of 2013 showed that the year on year prison population fell last year by 3,000, the first fall since 2000.

This success has not deterred Chris Grayling from immediately hardening the MoJ’s rhetoric on this issue.  In one of his first speeches in Parliament in the new role, he said ‘the only changes I want to see to the prison population will come through returning more foreign national prisoners to their countries of origin.’ Since then he has claimed that the Government’s focus should be on making the prison system ‘cheaper not smaller’. Nevertheless, Grayling has made clear his determination to continue Clarke’s ‘rehabilitation revolution’, a point he reiterated as one of his top five priorities in a speech to the Centre for Social Justice in November last year.

Both Clarke and Grayling have made steady progress against the nine pledges set out in the Programme for Government, most notably in the area of legal aid, despite the controversy generated by the reforms, which, according to critics, are making it harder for ordinary people to access justice.  The one exception to this progress came with the decision in 2010 to reverse plans to provide anonymity to rape defendants after an independent review concluded there was no evidence to demonstrate the value of changing the current policy.  The real test for the Department, however, and the backdrop against which all these changes are being made, will be the need to achieve the £2 billion of savings from the £9 billion MoJ budget.


Progress against the Coalition Agreement

Pledge: We will introduce a ‘rehabilitation revolution’ that will pay independent providers to reduce reoffending, paid for by the savings this new approach will generate within the criminal justice system.

Status: In progress - A range of measures were announced in the Department’s Green Paper, ‘Breaking the Cycle’, issued in December 2010.  These were developed further through the ‘Transforming Rehabilitation’ consultation, which closed in February this year. The latter proposed opening the majority of probation services to competition and the rollout of payment by results across rehabilitative services in the community.

Pledge: We will conduct a full review of sentencing policy to ensure that it is effective in deterring crime, protecting the public, punishing offenders and cutting reoffending. In particular, we will ensure that sentencing for drug use helps offenders come off drugs.

Status: DoneThe review of sentencing policy was published in December 2010 in the consultation ‘Breaking the Cycle: Effective Punishment, Rehabilitation and Sentencing of Offenders’. The changes announced were included in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act, 2012, which came into effect in April this year.

Pledge: We will explore alternative forms of secure, treatment-based accommodation for mentally ill and drugs offenders.

Status: In progressThe Department has launched 16 substance misuse and mental health pilots, focused on intensive treatment and rehabilitation.

Pledge: We will implement the Prisoners’ Earnings Act 1996 to allow deductions from the earnings of prisoners in properly paid work to be paid into the Victims’ Fund.

Status: Done – The Prisoners’ Earnings Act came into force in September 2011 and charges a 40% levy on prisoners’ earnings in the community over and above £20 per week. The proceeds go to support victims of crime through the national charity Victim Support.

Pledge: We will consider how to use proceeds from the Victim Surcharge to deliver up to 15 new rape crisis centres, and give existing rape crisis centres stable, long-term funding.

Status: In progress - The Government has allocated £11.5 million of funding for rape support services across England and Wales.  To date, nine new rape crisis centres have been set up and the next four new centres to be established over the next year will be located in Reading, Preston, Lincoln and Taunton.

Pledge: We will carry out a fundamental review of Legal Aid to make it work more efficiently.

Status: Done – The Department’s legal aid review was completed in 2010, and following consultation, it announced its intention to pursue legal aid reforms to – among other objectives – ‘discourage unnecessary and adversarial litigation at public expense’. The changes were enacted through the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act, 2012 and many of its provisions came into force in April 2013. In the same month, the MoJ also announced a new consultation, ‘Transforming Legal Aid: Delivery of a More Credible and Efficient System’, aimed at making further savings of £220 million from the legal aid bill. The consultation will run until 4th June.

Pledge: We will change the law so that historical convictions for consensual gay sex with over-16s will be treated as spent and will not show up on criminal records checks.

Status: Done – This pledge was implemented through the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012. From October 2012, anyone with a conviction meeting the terms laid out in the Act has been encouraged to apply to have their records deleted or disregarded.

Pledge: We will extend anonymity in rape cases to defendants.

Status: Not achieved – The Department commissioned an independent review of the evidence of the value of providing anonymity to rape defendants. In November 2010, the review reported that there were ‘insufficient, reliable, empirical findings on which to base an informed decision’ on the value of pursuing this policy, so the Government announced that it would be dropped.

Pledge: We will introduce effective measures to tackle anti-social behaviour and low-level crime, including forms of restorative justice such as Neighbourhood Justice Panels.

Status: In progress – The Department has announced its plans to abolish Labour’s infamous Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (ASBO).  Shadow Home Office Minister Gloria de Piero attracted popular media coverage when she suggested that the Government’s alternative will be something ‘weaker’.

In December 2012, the Government launched a consultation on a Community Remedy aimed at giving victims and the public more of a say in dealing with low-level crime out of court.  Plans for the establishment of Neighbourhood Justice Panels were set out in October 2012’s White Paper ‘Swift and Sure Justice’.  While the initial pilot has been extended, the implementation of this initiative has yet to be realised nation-wide.