The wise words of the inimitable Oscar Wilde ring in my ears and urge caution as I write this column but the sense of anger and rage which courses through my veins and brain cells right now compel me to carry on regardless.
Back in 1895 while writing the adult comedy ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ Wilde proffered:
“The truth is rarely pure and never simple.”
He is undoubtedly right, and calm and sober analysis of events and history teach us that truism is reliable. However the brutal and depraved revelations of the crimes committed by Joseph McCann heard in the Old Bailey in London yesterday demand we condemn Tory and Tory/Lib Dem coalition austerity cuts over the last ten years with the utmost passion and severity. An individual brute, an affront to humanity, was wrongly released from prison and was thereby free to commit heinous crimes against women and children.
Joseph McCann Is Nasty Brute
The charges were 10 counts of false imprisonment, seven counts of rape, one count of raping a child, two counts of causing or inciting a person to engage in sexual activity without consent, seven counts of kidnap, one count of attempted kidnap, three counts of causing or inciting a child under 13 to engage in sexual activity, three counts of assault by penetration, one count of sexual assault, and two counts of committing a sexual offence with intent.
The victims of these crimes will be scarred and traumatised for life. Children raped in front of each other. Young women raped and assaulted with knives and other weapons. Girls of 14 kidnapped and terrorised. An elderly woman of 71 was raped and detained against her will. A young boy of 11 was imprisoned and sexually assaulted. This animal faced 37 charges in total. Yet the fact is he should never have been able to commit them as he was released by error. His release was a mistake. A thoroughly predictable and inevitable mistake for which the Tories, the Lib Dem and Boris Johnson should be made to account for. It is not the case that they were not warned about such potential disasters. They were warned. They irresponsibly and disgracefully chose to ignore the warnings.
Stern Warnings Disgracefully Ignored
Almost exactly two years ago a major and detailed report warned the Tory government that their 2014 privatisation of the Probation Service combined with other cuts in the Justice system could have disastrous consequences and leave the public more exposed to danger from violent offenders. It was a truly damning indictment of government cuts to essential criminal justice services but it was ignored by arrogant, uninformed and irresponsible government ministers. Newspaper reports of the study could not have been clearer:
“The public is being put at risk by the Government’s failing privatisation of probation services as criminals commit murder and sexual offences while supposedly under supervision, a damning report has found.
HM Inspectorate of Probation said private companies commissioned in a 2014 overhaul of the service were failing to properly assess the risk of harm in half of cases, supervising thousands of convicts with phone calls every six weeks.
Some junior officers working for Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs) are handling more than 200 cases each, despite officials warning that a maximum of 60 can be taken on safely”.
A damning Report from two years ago warning the government that individuals in private companies brought in on the cheap to replace public probation service provision were working with individual caseloads of 200 when the maximum safe level is only 60 was ignored.
The Probation Service was already underfunded and therefore under severe stress and strain but the Tory government response was not to properly fund such an essential criminal justice service but to privatise it and hand out contracts to private providers, probably friends of government ministers.
Damning Assessment of Tory Government Cuts
In a damning assessment of the picture across England and Wales, Dame Glenys, the chief inspector of probation, said the Government’s Transforming Rehabilitation programme had overestimated revenue for private companies taking on parts of the probation service, forcing them to make cuts to staff and services.
Probation trusts were replaced by the new National Probation Service (NPS) and 21 CRCs, owned by eight separate organisations with different constitutions. It was yet another Tory privatisation scheme driven by the principle of costs reduction regardless of public safety and quality of service provision.
The 2017 Report found that since the reforms in 2014 the number of convicts committing a serious further offence while under probation supervision had risen by 20 per cent, from 429 to 517 and that a significant proportion of those had been convicted of murder, manslaughter or sexual offences.
So not a single government minister can claim they were not warned about the potential consequences of their cuts to the criminal justice system. The 2017 Report by the chief inspector of probation was stark and clear. The public were at risk if the situation was not addressed. Earlier this year that same chief inspector of probation issued yet another report with yet another stark warning:
“The number of probation professionals is at a critical level, with too much reliance on unqualified or agency staff. The probation model delivered by transforming rehabilitation is irredeemably flawed.
Above all, it has proved well-nigh impossible to reduce probation services to a set of contractual requirements”.
“Irredeemably flawed”! Can you get a more damning assessment of the government’s privatisation of probation and other criminal justice services?
Cuts Have Real Consequences for Real People
Cuts have consequences and in the case of Joseph McCann, his 11 innocent victims and the 37 charges he was found guilty of, those consequences were entirely predictable and indeed were predicted a full two years ago. Probation service bosses have been demoted, junior staff have been sacked, yet Boris Johnson, the boss of the party who caused the havoc in the first place, has avoided being held to account for this disgraceful situation.
The truth may indeed rarely be pure and never simple but in this instance Boris Johnson and the government he has been a Minister in for the last four years are wholly responsible for the ‘mistake’ that allowed a convicted criminal released on licence being set free from prison, when he should have been behind bars for several more years and only ever released after a proper Parole Board assessment. Tory Government cuts have undermined the probation service, the prison service, the parole board service and the police service. The Tories and Johnson must be held responsible for the consequences of their cuts.
A full and thorough enquiry has to be ordered into this shameful incident but for the moment the last word should be left to Harry Fletcher, the former assistant general secretary of the probation officers’ union Napo, who said cuts imposed by the government on the prisons and probation service since 2010 may well have been a major factor in the mistaken release of McCann:
“There is a much greater chance of errors being made than ever before. The background to this is that the budgets of both the probation service and prisons have systematically been cut over the last decade, so there is less staff and those that do remain have bigger caseloads.
A recent parliamentary answer shows that one person a week is let out wrongly. There has never been a consequence as devastating as this”.