Labour questions whether new justice minister is capable of holding suppliers to account

Labour has questioned a potential “conflict of interest” in the appointment of new Justice Minister Edward Argar– fearing the Government may be placing the profits of public corporations before public confidence.

Jun 21, 2018
By Nick Hudson
Edward Argar: New justice minister

Shadow Justice Secretary Richard Burgon has written to Tory counterpart David Gauke to express concern over the decision to bring in the north Leicestershire MP who previously worked for outsourcing giant Serco.

Mr Argar spent three years – until August 2014 – as the public affairs head of the company, which is under criminal investigation for overcharging the Ministry of Justice.

Serco, which runs five private prisons and transports 24,000 prisoners a month to court on behalf of the justice department, is currently being investigated by the Serious Fraud Office over a contract to provide electronic monitoring of prisoners.

Five years ago, during Mr Argar’s period of employment, the company agreed to pay £68.5 million for overcharging the MoJ following allegations the Government had been billed for the electronic monitoring of people who were still in jail, were not tagged anymore, or were even, in a few cases, dead. It was stripped of contract responsibilities, along with G4S.

In 2013, Serco also had to pay back £2 million over claims of fraud around its prisoner transfer contract.

While accepting that the new justice minister was not personally involved in either case, Mr Burgon claimed in his letter to Mr Gauke that the role of the private sector in the justice system of England and Wales is “increasingly contentious given the widespread performance failings in the probation service and in detention centres for young people”.

Mr Burgon wrote: “Serco itself has a controversial record in our justice system.”

And he argued: “It is essential that government ministers can command public confidence that they are capable of holding such companies [as Serco] to account, that the interests of the public, and not the profits of the corporations, are being put first and that there is no perceived conflict of interest.”

And he asked the Justice Secretary: “Given this could you confirm whether Mr Argar will be involved in any way in liaising on behalf of the Ministry of Justice with the Serious Fraud Office about the ongoing investigation or will be dealing with any of the Ministry’s contracts with Serco in his new ministerial capacity?”

Charnwood MP Mr Argar took over the post last week following the resignation of Dr Phillip Lee, who quit over the government’s attempts to limit Parliament’s role in Brexit.

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson confirmed to Police Professional: “The new Minister has been appointed in line with normal procedures and rules.”

The MoJ has been embroiled in an electronic tagging saga for years. This January a report by the Commons Public Accounts Committee described the programme – now five years late and £60 million over budget – as “a catastrophic waste of public money which has failed to deliver the intended benefits”.

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