Greater Manchester councils have agreed a deal with the government to take over the running of large parts of the local criminal justice system.
Greater Manchester Devolution
Interim Manchester Mayor and Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) Tony Lloyd has signed the deal. It will see Greater Manchester, the Ministry of Justice, the National Offender Management Service, the Youth Justice Board and other agencies commit to devolution by April 2017.
Mr Lloyd’s aim is to deliver local justice more effectively and in doing so, reduce offending. He said:
“This is not just about devolution – we will work together to see what needs to change and co-design an effective criminal justice system that meets the needs of local people and our conurbation.”
In theory this could lead to a far more joined up approach by the monolithic agencies that so often fail to work together effectively. In that respect it is the natural next step for Manchester Council, who as part of George Osborne’s ‘Northern Powerhouse’ initiative have trailblazed devolution, most recently with health and social care.
But could Devolution prove to be a Poisoned Chalice?
Is this a step too far and simply a form of dumping responsibility on to an already cash strapped local authority? Last month the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee accused the Ministry of Justice of bringing the criminal justice system to breaking point, after slashing its budget by 26%. Another 15% of cuts are proposed between now and 2020. Any one with a passing acquaintance with the criminal courts will tell you that they are on the edge of chaos. Add the potential economic consequences of Brexit in to the mix, with the likelihood of even further pressure on public finances, and the future looks even less certain. Factor in also that Manchester has some of the worst performing courts in the country, where only 18% of trials go ahead on the day and a cynic might see why a government would be keen to offload responsibility.
Despite this, if the plan is developed with the proper input of professionals and agencies who work within the system, then it could be transformative. Imagine if the courts communicated effectively with the prisons, with probation, with the police and with court users. Imagine if genuinely new alternatives to custody were developed here, keeping offenders out of prison and costs down; after all, locking someone up is so often not only the most expensive way to deal with them but also the least effective. If health and social care has been devolved too, why couldn’t Manchester do groundbreaking work on diverting the mentally ill from the court system? The criminalisation of the mentally ill is one of the biggest scandals of all. There is so much to do and so much that needs changing. We shall see if Manchester rises to the challenge.
Alex Preston – Specialist Criminal Defence Lawyer
Written by Alex Preston. Alex specialises in the defence of serious crime.