'Just Solutions' in an unjust world

'Just Solutions' in an unjust world

Britain sells its prison expertise to floggers and torturers   

During a visit to Libya in 2004 I met a British diplomat who told me Britain had been helping the Gadafi regime to improve its prisons. 

The story, as I recall it, was that Libyan prison officials had visited Britain to see how we run our jails. Perhaps noting my look of surprise, the diplomat hastened to add that if the visit had shown Libyans how a prison can be run without torturing people, the exercise would be very worthwhile.

A few years later, however, someone in government decided that this kind of "assistance" could be turned into a nice little money-spinner for British taxpayers – by selling our prison expertise to governments abroad.

And so a new Great British Enterprise was born. It goes by the name of Just Solutions International – a quasi business based in the northern town of Warrington but owned by the Ministry of Justice.

Just Solutions was apparently set up – unannounced – in 2012, against a background of deep spending cuts, and it is part of a much broader project to reduce the impact of cuts by generating new revenue streams for the government.

Behind the scenes, a central figure in this is Steve Beet, a partner in the accountancy firm, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC). Beet's speciality, according to his profile, is "transformation programmes to enhance public service delivery including the 'commercialisation' of entities within government".


Steve Beet

In a blog post on PwC's website, Beet explains that British civil servants "have an impressive stock of expertise that is highly regarded both internationally and by the private sector". The challenge, he says, is to "identify, protect and commercialise" this know-how.

He goes on to cite Just Solutions as one of several "pockets of good practice already in existence". The money earned by Just Solutions, he says, will be re-invested into research that supports the work of NOMS (Britain's National Offender Management Service). This, he adds, is an example "not only of government earning income on its IP [intellectual property], but also of it using that income to maintain a high standard of service delivery" in the face of budget cuts.

But if Just Solutions is such a brilliant idea, why is the government so reluctant to talk about it? Hardly any information about its activities has been released to the public or parliament, though we do know that it is bidding for a £5.9 million contract with the Saudi Arabian prison service, that it recently won a £848,000 contract in Macedonia and is also bidding to help design a new prison in the repressive state of Oman.

A freedom of information request for documents relating to the Saudi bid has been refused by Whitehall officials, mainly on the grounds of commercial confidentiality, but the Gulf Centre for Human Rights is now planning a challenge through the courts, arguing that assisting Saudi Arabia with its prisons is not a proper legal activity for the British government to engage in. An appeal for donations has been set up to crowd-fund the court case (details here).

Aside from all the questions about what, exactly, Just Solutions is up to, there's also an important moral question here. Does selling prison expertise to Saudi Arabia (for instance) amount to connivance with one of the world's most abusive justice systems, or can it be defended on humanitarian grounds for making the lives of prisoners just a little more bearable?

In that connection it's worth pointing out that human rights organisations sometimes "collaborate" with the system too, visiting prisons and making practical suggestions for improving conditions in them.

In 2011, to choose one random example, Human Rights Watch visited a prison in post-revolution Tunisia – for the first time in 20 years – and issued a report which made recommendations for improving cells and the exercise yard. While emphasising that it opposes the death penalty in all circumstances, HRW also urged that prisoners awaiting execution should be allowed visits from their families (which had not been happening).

It's very likely that Just Solutions would make similar recommendations to its foreign clients in similar circumstances, but there are two very important differences. One is that Human Rights Watch doesn't charge governments for its advice. The other is that it publishes its recommendations and explains the reasons for them.

For Just Solutions, the commercial element brings a huge complication. Imagine a situation where it's helping to design a new prison for a client who happens to be a well-known police state. Overall, the plans are an improvement on the existing prisons but the client insists on having cells that are a bit less than the recommended size and wants to include a room at the end of a corridor which looks suspiciously like it might be used for torture.

So what is Just Solutions going to do about that? Will it turn a blind eye or will it risk losing the contract, knowing that it is under pressure from the government to generate revenue?

It's possible, of course, that it already has guidelines for such situations. But, if it does, we don't know what they are and Just Solutions isn't saying.

Hiding behind the screen of commercial sensitivities simply won't wash. Just Solutions may see itself as a business but it's also an arm of government and the public have a right to know what it is doing. If it is to continue operating, it should work within clear parameters set by parliament, and be subjected to a form of public scrutiny that ensures its compliance.

If business confidentiality doesn't allow that, it should be shut down forthwith.