Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Turning the Heat on the Ministry of Justice?

It used to be one of Whitehall and Westminster’s little secrets that witnesses appearing before Select Committees are told what they’re going to be asked. Nothing could be put in writing but in my day a committee clerk would phone a civil servant a few days before a minister or senior official appeared and run through the topics. Sensible to allow them to get briefed some might say and the MP’s are anyway free to ask questions in their own way – or even go off script. But the whole thing used to be a lot more managed than it seemed.

I’m not sure whether the Ministry of Justice top brass know what they are going to be asked this morning at the Justice Committee but the business is last year’s  MoJ's Annual Report “and related matters”. Are we likely to learn much?

After Liz Truss suggested to them last month that prison reform plans might be on hold, the Committee will want confirmation that this is not the case and ideally tease out a timetable for a plan, white paper or legislation. These will be met with a straight bat. On criminal justice, I hope the Committee has a go at three other topics.

First is the state of probation. The foreword to the Annual report says that Transforming Rehabilitation   “is still bedding in, but it is already showing innovation in how offenders are supervised and supported”. The recent Probation Inspectorate report on Through the Gate schemes found “there was little evidence of the anticipated creativity or innovation in the new services being delivered by the Community Rehabilitation Companies.” Permanent Secretary Richard Heaton told the Public Accounts committee in the summer that he was not 100% confident about the programme. When pressed he said he was 60%. What’s the percentage today he might be asked? His department has reviewed the whole programme and the Committee will want to know what they found and what they’re doing about it.

Second there’s electronic monitoring. As the MOJ’s earlier efforts to get satellite tracking off the ground were rated unachievable by the Infrastructure Agency and subsequently scrapped, the Committee will want to know if the plans for new pilots (shared with them in June) are faring better.

Third, there are two matters inherited from the ancient regime. What has happened to the Youth Justice review? And where are we with problem solving courts?  Mr Heaton may be sent out to beat the retreat on one or both- but will probably resort to the straight bat.

 If all that gets too exciting, the Committee could ask something about the governance of the department. Much has changed since the Department’s Single Departmental Plan was published and appointments made to its Board. Are both the plan and the Board still fit for purpose? Or does a new Ministerial team mean they will be up for a refresh.   

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