George Osborne’s Budget won him praise from across the political spectrum. Besides the positive headlines, the Chancellor also bought some important wriggle room, by smoothing the path of deficit reduction over the course of this parliament. Yet he has still left himself much to do in the forthcoming Comprehensive Spending Review. The commitment to protecting the budgets of the NHS, defence, schools and international development will mean deep cuts elsewhere. In particular, the Home Office and Ministry of Justice – which have already seen their funding cut by a quarter since 2010 – face a further reduction of 25% or more over the next parliament. Most of the low hanging fruit is now gone. Things are about to get tricky.
Many will argue that with overall crime continuing to fall (and some sections of the police having cried wolf a little too often), Osborne won’t be overly anxious about making further significant cuts to the criminal justice system. However, the man widely tipped to be the next Prime Minister is unlikely to be so complacent. As Chancellor, he wants his legacy to be as much about ‘reform’ as it is about wielding the axe. So what can we expect?
English devolution in the criminal justice sector
One development to watch out for is whether Osborne decides to use the Spending Review to announce a further devolution of criminal justice policy. The English devolution agenda has been a major source of political energy for the Conservatives – extending it into criminal justice would be a bold step and one likely be supported by Michael Gove. The Justice Secretary is known to be in the market for ways to unleash greater innovation in our creakingly inefficient prisons, probation and courts.
Pursuing a devolution agenda would also allow Osborne to burnish his centrist credentials, with many Labour-controlled local authorities keen to see criminal justice budgets devolved. Local leaders in Manchester have long argued that having more of a say over community safety would allow them to switch resources upstream, intervening earlier to prevent crime and reducing the size of the prison population later on.
Something else to look out for is whether Osborne and the Home Office decide to tackle the thorny issue of police funding reform. Of course designing a new funding formula was always going to be fraught with difficulty, but there does appear to be some truth to the charge (made by a number of Labour PCCs) that the Home Office’s proposals will disproportionately affect large urban forces, since by definition they tend to be most reliant on central government funding, whilst rural forces with more affluent communities are better placed to be able to raise additional funds through local taxation. As a quid pro quo for less Home Office funding, PCCs are likely to receive the additional powers to raise money locally through the police precept they have long called for. Stand by for tax to become an issue during next year’s PCC election campaigns.
High stakes at the PCC elections
Osborne may also use the Spending Review to accelerate plans for a merging of police and fire services. Last month’s consultation, launched by the Home Office, was greeted with dismay by policing and fire unions. But if it can be shown that the move will deliver savings, which in turn can be re-invested back into the front line, the case for change will be compelling. It may not quite be a done deal, but by limiting the consultation to just six weeks ministers have made sure they will have time to reflect and accommodate a decision to push ahead within the Spending Review, should they so wish.
With the next round of Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) elections on the horizon, the stakes could not be higher. PCCs could conceivably wake up on the morning of 26 November to the prospect of taking over responsibility for the management of the fire services, the courts, even parts of the Crown Prosecution Service. Some may find their roles are to be subsumed within metro mayors, as has already happened in Manchester and may happen on Merseyside and in Yorkshire. They will certainly face the prospect of overseeing police forces significantly smaller in numbers than those they took over in 2012, at a time when demands on their time continue to grow, driven by changing patterns of crime rising expectations, and shortfalls in other public services.
Criminal justice was almost entirely absent from the General Election campaign. A mere four months later no sector faces harder choices or more profound change.