Sadiq Khan: Labour won't be scared of taking on multinationals

Ian Dunt By

I sat down for a chat with shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan in his constituency headquarters yesterday. It's a long interview – I let it play out rather than editing it down because justice issues have barely been touched on in this election. As far as I can tell this is the only interview where Labour's justice priorities have been thoroughly laid out during the campaign.

Khan can't give promises. We know there are spending cuts coming and we know that the Ministry of Justice hasn't been ringfenced, so we can expect savings will need to be made. In prisons, that either means cutting down on the prison population or facing the kind of crisis Chris Grayling has presided over. Something's got to give, either in supply or demand - and it isn't going to be supply.

Khan gives some encouraging answers here. While he stops well short of where some of us would like on prisons, he says non-custodial sentences will be needed for non-violent, non-persistent offenders and he puts an emphasis on rehabilitation over punishment. All of this is a world away from Grayling.

On legal aid, he can't make any promises, but he stresses his own commitment to it in passionate and convincing terms. He portrays himself as the kind of guy who is going to fight that corner. He has a proper understanding of the appropriate tension between the executive and the judiciary and he's got a good record fighting against cuts to citizen's legal powers, such as on judicial review and legal aid. One might consider this a pre-requisite of holding the justice secretary or lord chancellor post, but the last few years have robbed us of that notion.

The most interesting ideas Khan expresses are on private firms' involvement in public service provision. The Tooting MP has some clear ideas about how to improve that – including devolving decision-making on a regional basis, or even to individual prison governors. And he has some firm rhetoric to go with it, proudly saying that Labour "won't be scared to take on multinationals". He also comprehends the way large firms can outbid and consequently de-skill charities and the public sector by hammering their way into a contract using their sheer size.

All in all, there's a lot there for penal reformers to be satisfied with. I've copied the key extracts below if you don't have time to sit through the whole film.

On prisons

"We've got a different view about our penal policy than Chris Grayling. We think the purpose is to both punish and reform. The first thing we'd do is go back to basics, which means being tough on the causes of crime. We should be investing far more in preventing people being first-time offenders.

"We're going to pilot the YJS [Youth Justice Services] being involved with under-21-year-olds. We're going to give judges and magistrates the tools to give the appropriate sentence to the offenders to stop them reoffending. More restorative justice. Better intensive alternatives to custody, to make sure prison is for those who are violent offenders, those who are persistent offenders. But to make sure those who go there are punished and reformed. That means making sure we're savvy about our resources.

"What we're going to do is: fewer first time offenders, fewer crimes being committed, those people who are committing offences caught, charged, prosecuted - due process done. If they're found guilty the judge or magistrate has the correct tools at their disposal to make sure that person is both punished and reformed. I'd expect to see at the end of a five year Labour government less crime, less first-time offenders and our prisons working, which means people going to prisons going on training courses, education courses, working in prisons.

"We're going to review the changes made by Grayling's privileges scheme. Were not going to try to suck up to the editors of the red top newspapers or try and throw red meat to backbencher MPs. We're going to try what works. We're also going to give prisons more autonomy. There are some prisons doing a great job.

"The problem with many of our prisons is there's a revolving door of governors. They join a prison, they do OK and they're moved on. We want governors to stay in their job for a long time.

"The prisons that are working well, we want to give them more autonomy. Why can't there be prisons with a prison board with local employers, councillors, police, probation on the board, advising the governor what works best? We also want to see prison staff being more professionalised. Why can't there be a chartered institute of prison officers to skill them up? Prison officers now are just frustrated that what they're doing now is simply locking and unlocking doors rather than enhancing their skills."

On private sector involvement in public services

"If I'm justice secretary we'll demand from the private sector high standards. If they're not doing a good job we'll haul them in and demand they do a good job. They should be treated the same as the public sector. At the moment the playing field is not level. We're going to extend Freedom of Information so it covers private companies as well. Rather than private companies getting these brand spanking new prisons and letting us down we want to make sure that they're treated the same as the public sector and sharing best practices.

"The procurement of contracts are often done centrally, by civil servants in Whitehall who don't know what's best for a particular prison. Prison governors often can't hold to account education contractors running education services in prisons. We want to give governors more autonomy. This would be done by region. Some of it may even be done with governors.

"One thing we're keen to do is devolve more and more power out of Whitehall. We want for every part of the country for there to be a Margaret Hodge, holding to account those who are doing at taxpayer expense public services.

"The reason we're told by private companies why they can't share good practice is because they're competitors. Well that's madness. They provide a public service at taxpayer expense. You'd expect public sector to share best practice, we should demand the same from the private companies.

"What we don't want – and I'm not saying there are – is for there to be cartels or monopolies operating so that smaller companies can't bid or that the public sector can't bid in future. One of my concerns about the role of the private sector is that, over a period of time, you reach a stage where the public sector can't bid anymore because there isn't enough public sector expertise left, or it's only the big boys, and I mean the word boys, running these contracts. Look at the procurement chain. We should be asking the big boys: 'who are you using in the supply chain?' Smaller companies, charities, local businesses. We should encourage them to make sure there's as many people as possible involved in these contracts.

"[In probation] it was the usual suspects bidding for these contracts. No-one else could bid because of the risks involved. We need to make sure it isn't the same multinationals bidding for these contracts, winning these contracts, and then we're in the situation where politicians... are too scared to take on multinationals. The next Labour government won't be scared to take on multinationals providing public services at taxpayers' expense.

On legal aid cuts and judicial review

"I'm really proud it was a Labour government who created a welfare state and there were three parts to the welfare state: the National Health Service, social security and legal aid. Legal aid enables people to have access for justice. That's a fundamental difference between us, the Conservatives and the Lib Dems. The Lib Dems have voted for every single cut to legal aid. We're committed to widening access to justice. We're committed to giving people the powers to hold power to account. As a former lawyer doing legal aid work, but also as a former minister being regularly advised to follow due process, I understand the tensions between the executive and being held to account. But living in a civilised country I quite like this tension. The separation of powers is important. There should be that tension."

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