How Gove is dumping one of Britain’s worst courts on Labour’s Greater Manchester

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Michael Gove, the justice secretary, is planning to dump on the citizens of Greater Manchester responsibility for running one of the worst funded and performing courts in England and Wales.

It is being packaged  under the slogan ” Northern Powerhouse” but it amounts to making sure Labour has to take responsibility for the court at a time when the government is planning even more cuts to the judicial system which is already in chaos. I have written about this in Tribune magazine.

Already a damning report last month from the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee  has accused the ministry of bringing the criminal justice system to breaking point after slashing 26 per cent from its budget and closing courts across the country. Another 15 per cent of cuts are proposed between now and 2020.

The report revealed for the first time how the impact of the cuts had on individual crown courts revealing the best and worst performers in handling trials in a system now bedevilled by delays, lawyer shortages, and inefficiencies. A backlog of more than 50,000 cases has built up.

On average only around a third of trials in Crown Courts went ahead as planned on the day they were due to start. One in 10 cases were not ready and were postponed to another day. Currently, 24 per cent of cases are withdrawn on the day they are due to start, most commonly because the defendant pleads guilty on the day.

In Greater Manchester, only 18 per of cases went ahead on the day (the only worse place was Lancashire with 16 per cent); 21 per cent were withdrawn on the day after the defendant pleaded guilty and more than half, the joint highest in the country, of cases (55 per cent) are put back because they cannot start on the day scheduled.

MPs tried to get information from the government on how the new devolved package to Greater Manchester would work but were told “there is quite a lot of detail to be worked out” even though the move had been included in the March Budget statement by George Osborne, the Chancellor.

To my mind this suggests that the proposal is nothing more than a” back of the envelope ” job by the Tories who have  not thought out what exactly this will mean. Any sane person would have a plan in mind before making such a radical change. But then that is hardly surprising given the mess Gove has left behind  at the Department of Education by rushing through plans for academies without checking financial controls.

Greater Manchester need to be on their guard that they are not being offered a poisoned chalice by the government – and need to negotiate very carefully what exactly is being offered by Gove to run this part of the judicial system. Otherwise they find themselves the whipping boy for failed Tory policies and  be conveniently blamed for the cash starved judicial system.

How the Legal Ombudsman’s Office ripped off the taxpayer with a £1m irregular incentive scheme

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What  would you think if the organisation that handles your complaint against a poorly performing solicitor or barrister was itself ripping you off as a taxpayer?

That  is the extraordinary situation in the Office of Legal Complaints or Legal Ombudsman for the last six years where well over £1m extra cash has been paid to its staff  without approval from anyone just to keep them from taking jobs in the private sector.

This was exposed last month in a  virtually unreported disclosure from the National Audit Office. I have written it up for Tribune magazine this month.

The office handles tens of thousands of complaints every year from the general public about poor service from legal professionals – whether it is over conveyancing,personal injuries, wills or family disputes. What emerged about what was going in this office of over 200 people has led to resignation or dismissal  ( whether you take his version or the Ministry of Justice’s ) of its £167,000 a year head, Adam Sampson  who has been described by his permanent secretary as “ not a fit and proper person” to continue  as an accounting officer to Parliament.

He presided over what the NAO called a ” novel and contentious” irregular payment scheme which saw its top officers and the rest of his staff benefit from pay enhancements well beyond anything else available in Whitehall currently suffering pay freezes and one per cent pay rises.

The two unauthorised pay schemes were aimed to retain legal staff who might be tempted to leave and join the private sector. One for senior executives was according to the annual accounts “a benefit in addition to salary and was ­believed by the OLC at the time to be necessary to attract and retain the best candidates nationally to senior posts within the organisation”. Some £33,000 was paid out the last financial year – ­altogether some £348,000 has been paid over six years.

The second scheme for general staff allowed up to an extra 3 per cent to be paid on top of their salaries to encourage them not to leave to join the private sector. This cost nearly £900,000.

Neither scheme was authorised by the Ministry of Justice and neither was spotted for four years either. Successive Lord Chancellors -Kenneth Clarke and Chris Grayling didn’t notice.

On top of this there is suggestion of  alleged expenses fiddling by the chief executive.

The report said an arrangement from 2009 assumed “Mr Sampson to be living in Birmingham [where the OLC offices were based from January 2010] despite his only spending up to two nights a week in Birmingham away from his London home.”

The claims involved train fares which could not be solely justified for business use between London and Birmingham.

The Ministry has reported him to the tax authorities for not declaring them as a benefit in kind. Altogether he had received over £27,000 in benefits in kind over the last two years in office.

What is extraordinary is that the two schemes are still in existence today and the Treasury is still trying to end them this year. The reason is that the contracts drawn up by lawyers are so watertight that the Treasury is having difficulty unravelling them.

One can only say that if the lawyers at the Office of Legal Complaints spent as much time providing a good service to the  public as they did in drawing up lucrative contracts for themselves Whitehall would be a much better place.

Why are we waiting for Lady Macur’s Review into child sex abuse in North Wales?

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Why does a judge having meticulously completed a major report on failings in investigating historic child sexual abuse in North Wales want to redact her own findings?

This is the bizarre  question facing  Lady  Justice Macur who on December 15 last year handed in her final independent report to the Welsh Office and the Ministry of Justice. Yet only weeks later Caroline Dinenage, the junior minister at Ministry of Justice, told Ann Clwyd, Labour MP for Cynon Valley, that the judge herself was recommending ” certain material  should be considered for redaction”.

She also disclosed that ” the report needs to be considered by law enforcement agencies and the government before it can be published. This includes considering whether redactions need to be  made”.

At the moment there is no date for publication – rather like the situation until last month surrounding  Dame Janet’s Smith’s report into Savile at the BBC which had been delayed for more than a year after being completed.

The report is particularly significant for survivors of child sexual and physical abuse in North Wales children’s homes. An inquiry  by Sir Ronald Waterhouse into the abuse of children in care in the former Gwynedd and Clwyd council areas of North Wales between 1974 and 1996 was supposed to get to the root of the problem and see perpetrators jailed.

But it is now obvious some 20 years later that it failed to do so as Operation Pallial under the National Crime Agency has brought many perpetrators to the courts where they have either been found guilty and imprisoned or not guilty and allowed to continue with their lives.

The review will examine some very important questions. Was the scope of the first review adequate or did the terms of reference allow people to escape justice? Did the North Wales police do an adequate job investigating these crimes? How did some people get away with abuse? What do the police, the authorities and the government need to do to prevent such a repetition?

Yet at least two Welsh MPs Ann Clwyd and Wrexham MP Ian Lucas are far from happy about the fresh delay – the inquiry was started four years ago.

Ann Clwyd is particularly sceptical as to why the government needs to scrutinise the report before it is published.

She points out in a letter to Caroline Dinenage that it is meant to be independent of government but now the government will decide when it will be published and what will be published.

She wants to know whether the government and law enforcement agencies have been set deadlines and who will take the decision to redact what material and why.

It may be with Operation Pallial still to bring some cases to court notably the trial of ex  North Wales police chief Gordon Angelsea whose case is not due to start until  September that some material may not be published to avoid prejudicing the trial.

However none of this has been made clear. The Wales Office and the Ministry of Justice need to get on with this – set a date for publication – or suspicions will grow that both departments have something to hide. They owe this to the survivors of these appalling cases in children’s homes in North Wales.

 

 

How Kenneth Clarke and Chris Grayling’s failed commercial venture cost us the taxpayer over £1m

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An extraordinary report published by the National Audit Office today on ” Just Solutions” – the commercial arm of the Ministry of Justice set up by former Lord Chancellor Kenneth Clarke – reveals that taxpayers have lost over £1m on the failed venture.

Remember this was promoted by Chris Grayling so the Ministry of Justice could make money by selling prison expertise to regimes with appalling judicial systems like Saudi Arabia and Oman. It was closed down by Michael Gove when he became justice secretary after the election.

Now the NAO reveals that not only was this unethical but it actually cost the taxpayer money. Indeed one can see how desperate the government might have been to sign a  £5.9 m contract with Saudi Arabia and further contracts with Oman – as this would have been the only way it could have made a profit out it.

Instead over four years  from 2012 to this year  it lost £302,000, £390,000 £317,000  and £141,000 respectively. leading to a £ 1,150,000 cumulative loss for the taxpayer.

And its scope was much wider than people realised with projects in Nigeria, the Seychelles, Libya, Estonia, Mauritius, Bermuda, the Cayman Islands as well as private study visits to drum up business in China, Bangla Desh, Turkmenistan and India.

As the NAO found: ” The cost of setting up JSi exceeded the income generated by completed contracts. We estimate that JSi’s costs were approximately £2.1 million from 2012 until its closure, including £239,000 on consultancy services. Therefore JSi made a net loss of approximately £1.1 million in this period. This is due, in part, to the decision to withdraw from prospective arrangements with Saudi Arabia and Oman.”

The report discloses that it had big plans for Oman.

“The initial proposal, Phase 1, was for a small piece of work to critique the plans of an
existing prison and was valued at £98,000. This was expected to be followed by work
to develop a new prison in Oman, Phase 2, valued initially at approximately £4 million
but later negotiations increased this to £7.8 million. In addition, preliminary discussions
were held in 2014 with the Omani government around a national training programme.”

Grayling also spent £6500 fighting off a judicial review  of its activities before the organisation was closed by Michael Gove.

This is all a far cry from the boasts in the Ministry of Justice six monthly report saying it was all contributing to the ministry’s budget and supposed to be saving the taxpayer money. Instead it was racking up debts.

This a sorry tale for anybody who has a shred of ethics and thought Britain should not be helping regimes that flog and behead offenders. Bur the fact that it lost money doing it is  a  further damning indictment of the government and Chris Grayling.

As Meg Hillier, chair of the public accounts committee, said yesterday:  “When Just Solutions International was closed down it had made an overall loss of £1.1 million despite a commitment that it would be self-funding by April 2013.

“Despite being a commercial venture, it generated less than £1 million income over three years.

“I am concerned by the loss of taxpayers’ money on this failed venture, and the Ministry of Justice’s ongoing work with countries with questionable human rights records.”

 

 

Dropped: The vile Saudi Arabian contract that helped prop up a barbaric justice system

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The Cabinet revolt that ended the £5.9m contract bid by the now doomed Just Solutions International – the commercial arm of the Ministry of Justice – is to be welcomed.

Justice Secretary  Michael Gove’s decision to press home ending this deal over the head of Philip Hammond, the foreign secretary, and initially, David Cameron, is the only morally acceptable case. Britain could not be seen helping a country that uses public beheadings, floggings and crucifixion as a routine part of its justice system.

When I first saw the disclosure of the deal in a routine half yearly report of the Ministry of Justice laid before Parliament I had no idea we had a commercial arm of the ministry, let alone that we had already done deals with Oman and Macedonia and were bidding for a Saudi contract.

Thanks to the work of. lawyer David Allen Green – known as Jack O’Kent on Twitter- who has assiduously followed this issue since -Downing Street has become embarrassed – and finally thrown in the towel. You can follow him on the JackofKentblog

I am also delighted that Lord Falconer, the shadow Lord Chancellor has reported this to the National Audit Office – because Just Solutions International set up by Gove’s predecessor, Chris Grayling, deserves a thorough financial examination.

I am also pleased that Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader used his conference speech to demand David Cameron dropped the deal. I realise that he reads Tribune where I also featured developments there.

So for once justice has been done and seen to be done in the full glare of the media – rather than injustice being sneaked out in obscure Parliamentary reports.

So afraid of the Saudis: How the Brits daren’t cancel a contract to bolster barbaric justice

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Jeremy Corbyn has challenged David Cameron to explain why the British government can’t cancel a contract with the Saudis to provide training for their prison system just as it is about to execute a teenage dissident and crucify his body.

The Prime Minister who rightly does not spare a word in condemning Islamic State for its barbarism from throwing gay people off high buildings, and the public beheading of dissidents and hostages, is coy about financing the Saudis to behead its own dissidents or lash its social media bloggers like Raif Badawi.

Michael Gove, the new justice secretary, last week announced he was closing down Just Solutions International, the commercial wing of the Ministry of Justice that was flogging expertise to unsavoury regimes including Oman and the Saudis.

Except  that in its afterlife it will continue with a contract to Saudi Arabia,His decision reverses the policy of his predecessor, Chris Grayling, who was planning to expand its business as a way of raising revenue for the ministry without being particular about which regime’s justice system they were supporting.

The existence of Just Solutions International was revealed earlier on my own blog. So it i is good news that Michael Gove, the new justice secretary,is closing it.

This is a secretive organisation that the ministry refused to reveal any details about – despite admitting there are 2000 emails about its operations. A splendid thorough investigation of the background of the company’s bid for Saudi Arabia has been written up by David Allen Green on his Jack of Kent blog.

I have also written a story for Tribune highlighting how ministers are admitting that the real reason they have not cancelled it is because in Andrew Selous’s words -( he is the junior minister at the Ministry of Justice) – “The critical factor was the strong view from across Government that withdrawing at such an advance stage would harm HMG’s broader engagement with Saudi Arabia.”

This replaced the phoney reason originally given to Parliament which ministers had to withdraw that it couldn’t be cancelled because the government faced penalty clauses. Despite that it is still reported in some media that this is the reason.

This is an appalling situation and the fact that Jeremy Corbyn linked this to the case of teenager Ali Mohammed Baqir al-Nimr who will be beheaded for a ” crime ” he committed when he was 14  deserves highlighting.

He wrote: “Will you step in to terminate the Ministry of Justice’s bid to provide services to the Saudi prisons system – the very body, I should stress, which will be responsible for carrying out Ali’s execution?”

The Labour leader concluded: “Ali’s case is especially urgent – the secrecy of the Saudi system means that he could face execution at any time, and even his family may only find out after the event. There is therefore no time to spare in taking this up with the Saudi authorities, if we are to prevent a grave injustice.”

Not only should he take this up  and the Foreign Office has said it will – but this contract should not go ahead. Britain should not dirty its hands with aiding a regime that imposes such cruel punishments anymore than it should support the Islamic State.

In Britain the National Audit Office ought to look at the setting up of Just Solutions International and decide whether this experiment in commercialising a department was ” value for money”..This should then be taken up by the Commons public accounts committee.

The secrecy around this is totally unjustified and it appears only Parliament can properly investigate it.

Exclusive: Michael Gove faces High Court action over selling legal services to aid Saudi beheaders and torturers

Michael Gove: Facing a High Court challenge over selling services to the Saudis

Michael Gove: Facing a High Court challenge over selling services to the Saudis

Tomorrow the High Court will receive an application from  the Gulf Centre  for Human Rights to bring a judicial review over the Justice Secretary’s decision to bid for commercial work from the Saudi Arabian government because of the regime’s appalling record of public beheadings, torturing dissidents and flogging bloggers like Raif Badawi.

The case against Michael Gove is a legacy from his predecessor Chris Grayling but is linked to an appalling case of torture against a Saudi Arabian -simply known for his own protection as AB.

The Gulf Center, a non governmental organisation based in Beirut and Copenhagen, defends independent journalists, lawyers and bloggers in the Middle East, is applying to take over the case  started by AB after it appears the Ministry of Justice retrospectively removed legal aid from him.

Central to the case is the shadowy and secretive (we know this as it vigorously finds any way not to release information) Just Solutions International, a commercial arm of the Ministry of Justice set up by Chris Grayling.As readers of this blog and those who follow the excellent  Jack of Kent aka lawyer David Allen Green will know – Just Solutions has an unenviable reputation of providing services to dodgy regimes and has a £5.9m bid for Saudi work at the moment.

The centre’s lawyers  want leave from the court to challenge whether the organisation has complied with official Whitehall guidelines before bidding for the contract and also whether Michael Gove or his predecessors  has acted illegally by creating this commercial organisation without any Parliamentary approval.

Their case cites information from  government documents on this blog and Jack of Kent’s blog. We have been separately pursuing the ministry over related issues.What they have found out is that there are no public documents saying that it followed the coalition’s  Overseas Judicial and Security Assistance guidelines.

These restrict all government departments from bidding for work from regimes which breach human rights if the Government’s reputation is damaged or is a serious risk to aiding or significantly increasing human rights abuses.These are spelled out as regimes that unlawfully detain people, have the death penalty, torture people and limit freedom of expression. Saudi Arabia ticks nearly very warning box.

Baroness Anelay: Saudi people want floggings

Baroness Anelay: Saudi people want floggings

Until now the standard response has been that this help is meant to help improve standards. that is until a comment from  foreign office minister Baroness Anelay in reference to the flogging of Raif Badawi in the Lords : ““My Lords, I think we have to recognise that the actions of the Saudi government in these respects have the support of the vast majority of the Saudi population.”

Melanie Gingell, a member of GCHR’s advisory board, said:: “It seems to us that far from improving human rights standards in the detention systems of these  regimes, the UK is more likely to be simply improving the efficiency of the systems within which these notorious abuses are being carried out.  The British public has been horrified by the public beheadings and floggings carried out in Saudi Arabia, and now mirrored by ISIS, and they have a right to know exactly what role the UK government is playing in these systems.”

She added, “We fear that the driving motivation behind these bids is purely commercial, and the veil of secrecy that has been drawn over them simply serves to deepen our concerns that the UK is making money out of the worst aspects of these regimes, that it condemns in public, but is happy to give support to in private.”

Deighton Pierce Glynn Solicitors (DPG) are acting for GCHR.  Adam Hundt, a partner at DPG, stated: “It is surprising that JSi’s activities have taken place shrouded in secrecy, and without parliamentary debate or approval.  If the UK is to sell its public services to regimes that behead people for sorcery, stone women to death and flog people for expressing pro-democracy views, then one would expect our Parliament to be consulted and given the opportunity to impose appropriate parameters on such activities.”

A campaign to crowd fund this action has also been launched by the Gulf Centre for Human Rights. The link is http://www.gofundme.com/saudiprisons