Tom McNally, the Lib Dem peer and justice minister, may face a less than positive reception when he returns to the Ministry of Justice after the party conference in Birmingham.
As the Guardian reported today, Lord McNally has already weighed in against his Tory colleagues at repeated fringe events, suggesting that the decision to add the word “punishment” to the government’s legal aid and sentencing bill was the work of “little elves that work in No 10″ helping the prime minister to get the right-wing media on side.
These comments were followed by a remarkably frank discussion of the MoJ’s move to transform the justice system and reduce reoffending through payment by results, at a fringe meeting looking at who should profit from the penal system.
Asking rhetorically whether the introduction of private providers into the prison service was “a sin against the holy ghost [of public provision] or a sensible way of the government financing much-needed services and competition”, Lord McNally acknowledged that the PBR drive had ultimately pragmatic motives.
The coalition has come into office with an ambitious programme of rehabilitation but no money to finance it.
This is strikingly different to the suggestions by Crispin Blunt, prisons minister, that the MoJ’s investigations into PBR are a ground-breaking global innovation. In fact, Lord McNally sounded like he had more in common with the union critics of PBR when he enumerated the dangers of the private contractors “cherry-picking” the easy-to-deliver projects and developing a “semi-monopoly” of huge providers, such as Serco and G4S, who win the majority of contracts.
Having appealed successfully to the Lib Dem’s left-leaning grassroots, the peer concluded that it was not worth resisting private entrants to the justice sector since companies had been providing prison and probation provision for the last 20 years. He said:
I do not rush into this starry-eyed but the idea of private involvement is a fact.
MoJ mandarins would have been cringing at the fact that Jerry Petherick, managing director of G4S offender management, was the only whole-hearted defender of their attempts to open the justice commissioning system up to greater competition.
Urging delegates to “set aside this us and them mentality”, Mr Petherick warned that any state monopoly would bring a form of stagnation, and that competition was “vital” to bring about improvements and change.
Given the widespread criticisms of the current penal system in the wake of the summer’s riots, by justice secretary Ken Clarke and others, it is clear that changes are needed. The question is whether increased competition really will deliver the rehabilitation revolution the government is after.