Government's community justice reforms 'recipe for obfuscation, if not disaster', says former Justice Secretary

Written by Alan Robertson on 18 December 2015 in News

Kenny MacAskill, who embarked on reforms while in government, labels proposals a "political fix between local and national government"

Government proposals to overhaul the delivery of community justice in Scotland are a “recipe for obfuscation, if not disaster”, a former Justice Secretary has claimed.

Kenny MacAskill - who embarked on the reforms before being succeeded by Michael Matheson last year - labelled them “yet another political fix between local and national government”.

The proposed legislation would see Scotland’s eight community justice authorities abolished within a decade of being set up. More local arrangements have been promised while a new national body - Community Justice Scotland - would also be established.


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Writing for the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies think-tank, MacAskill said the current debate is a “rerun” of that which led to CJAs being created in 2007.

The then Labour-led Scottish Executive backed down on a proposal for a single agency to deliver custodial and non-custodial sentences amid opposition from COSLA and the Association of Directors of Social Work.

“Now, following the establishment of single police and fire and rescue services, the fears of councils are even greater and the hostility towards a national service even more so,” said MacAskill.

“That’s why the Bill is framed as it is: yet another political fix between local and national government, but predicated on power rather than outcome."

MSPs last month backed the general principles of the Community Justice Bill, albeit concerns have been raised over short-term funding and the role of the third sector.

The Justice Committee has also expressed doubts that the reforms will “de-clutter” the community justice landscape outlined in the Commission on Women Offenders.

MacAskill said: “The return to 32 individual authorities with a myriad of agencies neither addresses the proposal of the Commission on Women Offenders for a national organisation, nor the concerns of the third sector on finance. Funding arrangements remain largely at the whim of already hard pressed local authority budgets.

“The ability to direct and hold accountable are equally vague and dependent on a variety of factors. A national agency at the top is dependent on individual local authorities delivering at the bottom. It’s a recipe for obfuscation if not disaster, as budgets tighten but needs expand.”

The SNP MSP, who was Justice Secretary when government consulted on reforms first in 2012 then again last year, warned of a danger that the third sector will be “marginalised” under the proposals.

“The funding will be diverted or not available and the structure will be a meeting place for a worthy talking shop," he added.

“To maintain the political truce between tiers of government, the structure is likely to remain unaltered, despite the fears that many have. Hopefully, the ability to switch to a national model, delivered locally, will be built in. For it’s likely that this political fix will also fail to satisfy.”

Ministers are considering a move to indicative funding for community justice services over a three-year period, having acknowledged the uncertainty that comes with one-year funding. A decision on the potential change will be made in the new year.

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said proposals in the bill will deliver “more effective community justice in Scotland’s communities” as a result of “stronger leadership and better strategic direction”.

She added: “The general principles of the bill are supported by Parliament and by the Justice Committee’s report and we have been undertaking an extensive process of stakeholder engagement.

“We are moving towards a society where those who have paid their debt to society through the justice system can be supported to be responsible citizens who contribute to their communities.

“The bill has been designed to be flexible enough to respond to developments in policy, for example an increase in the use of community sentences in the future.

“The knowledge and experience of the third sector play a vital role in community justice and we are looking to strengthen their role in the new model in Stage 2 of the parliamentary process.”

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