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With the general elections upon us, we’ve had a chance to look through some of the responses to our survey on the upcoming elections. With the period of austerity continuing to be of concern, now is a good time to assess the criminal justice challenges any new government is going to face.

The UK’s criminal justice system has witnessed a multitude of changes in recent years. The entrance of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition government certainly saw a series of impactful cuts and one of the most pronounced periods of austerity in recent years. 

Developing markets central to the operation and delivery of criminal justice services was the main focus in England and Wales; albeit at different speeds. A broad range of local and central commissioning models have been deployed since 2010. Some had already been piloted, whilst others were entirely new. 

The aim was to introduce price-competitive tendering and payment-by-results in prisons and probation; and local Police and Crime Commissioners responsible for budget decisions and procurement of public services. 

Regardless as to which party or parties dominate the elections on Thursday, the main influencing factor on criminal justice from May 2015 will continue to be financial resource. 

Across the UK, spending on public order and safety (largely criminal justice) grew by 17% under Labour, whereas in the four years to 2014 it fell by 12%. According to the Institute of Fiscal Studies 2015 Green Budget, Home Office and Ministry of Justice budgets will have fallen by 19% and 29% respectively during 2010-2015. The Institute also predicts that the next government could face even further cuts potentially upwards of 40%. With all parties vying for government committed to ongoing measure to reduce public sector spending, I expect the Institute’s predictions will be right. 

The market in probation, although a late developer in the coalition’s time in office, is perhaps one where a market approach has been applied most systematically; a point made by the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies research entitled ‘The Coalition Years’. 
It’s difficult to say at this time, but with the enormity of the practical challenges involved in integrating service delivery through parallel probation systems, a post-election review of the current set-up is likely. 

What is also very interesting is the benchmarking of public sector prison costs against the lowest costs in the private prison sector. This has the potential to create new market opportunities under the next government. What we are likely to see is the move of ancillary services such as building and estate management into private hands, with the rest remaining in the public sector; a prison version of the probation arrangement if you like.

Of course, we need to keep in mind that markets of this nature are heavily influenced by party politics. Ultimately, whatever markets are created broadly reflect the priorities that the governing party or parties have identified. 

It is too difficult to call in terms of what each party or coalition government will focus on from a criminal justice point of view. The economy, immigration and the NHS have all featured heavily in the election campaign so far. I am not surprised to hear reports from the BBC that ‘crime’ only features 7th on the list of top priorities for voters. This, I am sure, is largely due to the fact that crime levels are the lowest they have been for 30 years. 

Labour has ‘committed’, a term I use carefully, to saving £800m across police forces in the UK, which they say will effectively save 10,000 frontline police posts from being cut. The party’s commitment to saving the police from further drastic cuts is clearly outlined in its Crime Manifesto, but there was little mention of how continued austerity will affect the rest of the criminal justice system. There’s been very little in the way of firm plans from the other parties too. 

What is clear though is that with another parliament of austerity on the cards, the criminal justice system will continue to see significant change. Whether the cuts will run as deep as what the Institute of Fiscal Studies predicts though, is yet to be seen. 

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