After reports emerged last week that the poorest in society are being ‘priced out’ of Legal Aid, as a result of yet another cut to funding in the British criminal justice system, it’s time we all realised the truth. Austerity is putting us in danger. It’s common sense, surely? You can’t police a country on the cheap. Cutting corners, and cutting costs is not conducive to reducing crime.
Consecutive governments have slashed the Legal Aid budget, meaning that access to the service is harder to obtain. Claims are means-tested, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing in itself; it helps to direct resources to those who need them most. However, the most vulnerable aren’t receiving the help they’re entitled to. While the cost of living has continued to rise, the threshold for eligibility to Legal Aid has been frozen, since 2010.
But if you’re rich? Worry not, you’ll get justice. TM Eye, Britain’s first private police force are the start of a two-tier system of policing, where those with money can pay for the protection from officers not employed by the state. For £200 a month, you can track the location of your local private police officer on an iPad. But if you’re not blessed with wealth, you’ll have to make do with a threadbare, struggling police force like the rest of us.
This is just one of the many problems caused by a reduction in funding for the criminal justice system. Earlier in the year, Angela Rafferty QC, the head of the criminal bar, spoke out about the “crumbling fabric of the court estate”, after claiming evidence in rape prosecutions is not being properly disclosed due to lack of funding.
The Law Society, who represent solicitors across the country, have taken legal action against the Ministry of Justice, after they cut fees for defence lawyers, which the Society argues is stripping them of the resources they need to carry out services like examining large volumes of material found on devices. Richard Miller, head of the justice team at the Law Society claimed: “The government don’t want to pay the police to go through it (evidence) and now they don’t want to pay the defence to go through it”.
Not only are forces outsourcing digitalised forensic investigative work to defence lawyers, they are also contracting unaccredited labs to carry out tasks. At least 15 police forces are outsourcing the analysis of phones and computers to private companies, many of whom aren’t subject to any thorough regulations.
But all the while, the Government are intent on pretending the cuts aren’t really happening. Theresa May has been officially rebuked this week, after the UK Statistics Authority deemed her claims made at Prime Minister’s Questions last month to be misleading. May had claimed the government was providing an extra £450m for policing over the next year. The claim was also repeated by Andrea Leadsom, the Leader of the House.
Labour MP Louise Haigh has now asked the Prime Minister to apologise, as in actuality, the money would be sourced from elsewhere within existing budgets and increasing council tax – not, as the PM suggested, from new money being pumped into the system.
So, what is the true extent of cuts to the criminal justice system? Since 2010, Britain has lost around 21,000 police officers, meaning numbers are at their lowest level since 1985, and there is currently a shortfall of 5000 detectives across England and Wales (1 in 5 detective jobs). The Met have warned that by 2021, officer numbers could plummet to 27,500, their lowest in years.
Our police force is over-stretched, under-funded, under-staffed and grossly under-valued, with real term pay dropping around 15% since 2010. In order to save money, the Met last year announced they would have to stop investigating low level volume crimes to save £400mil by 2020. When our police forces are actively having to stop doing their jobs because they simply can’t afford to, there is an irrefutable problem.
At a time where crime statistics show recorded offences are rocketing, we should be able to rely on our police to help us should we be victims of a crime, regardless of how routine or trivial. Just yesterday, it was reported that some forces are taking days to respond to 999 calls, that would usually be responded to within the hour. In Cambridgeshire, for example, the average “prompt” response time was 15 hours. HMICFRS found that more than half of chances to identify an offender was missed, and more than 50,000 police hours were spent dealing with mental health issues, showing that performance and efficiency is undeniably being affected by cuts.
Our prisons are in crisis too. Self-harm, overcrowding, drug epidemics and riots are on the rise and we have the highest prison population in western Europe. The Tories have cut 7000 prison officers since 2010, and those who aren’t cut, are leaving in droves. Is it any wonder? Who would want to risk their life daily, as prison officers do, for less than £21k a year? These people are undervalued, and often working in critically under-staffed environments, unfit for human habitation.
Take for example the squalid conditions at Liverpool prison. In January, inspectors found rats, cockroaches, and pools of urine in residential areas. Rather unsurprisingly, suicide rates at the jail were the highest in the country. This prison in it’s current state is simply not fit for purpose, as is the case for many across the country, yet its budget has fallen by 17% since 2010. If our prisons aren’t rehabilitating those inside, what is the point? They will just be released, reoffend and a vicious cycle starts again. We should be doing our best to reform these people, not only to make us safer, but to reduce unnecessary costs to the public purse.
Sadly, this crisis will only get worse. While the government spin lies about funding increasing and the media lap it up unchallenged, nothing will change. Crime will get worse, in part due to poverty caused by austerity, our public services will continue to crumble, and as a result, we’ll be in danger. You absolutely cannot reduce crime and keep society safe on the cheap. It’s time the government listened to the array of evidence they are getting from experts at every level of the justice system.
Reverse the cuts to our justice system, before it’s too late.