Exploring the UK Ministry of Justice, Explaining Penal Policy

This blog post reports on a recent academic paper, which explored the traditions and practices of the UK Ministry of Justice. I sought to understand what it ‘is’ and what it is ‘for’ from the perspective of those who work within it. I then consider the implications of this for understanding developments in substantive policy areas.


Dr Harry Annison is an Associate Professor at Southampton Law School. His research mainly centres on penal policy and issues relating to indeterminate sentences. His book Dangerous Politics, which explored the politics of indeterminate sentencing, was published by Oxford University Press in 2015.


As Gemma Birkett has recently noted, we are in the midst of ‘perhaps the most radical reconfiguration of the penal state in the UK’. Recent years have seen proposals for mass court closures and ‘digital justice’; the dramatic reductions in legal aid continuing to bite; the hollowing out of probation, following rushed part-privatization; and sustained concern at prison conditions and high levels of suicide, self-harm and violence.

The responsibility for these policy areas lies in the UK with the Ministry of Justice, now 11 years old.[1] In a recent paper, I considered the history of the department and what it ‘is’: what are the traditions (the collections of beliefs) that underpin the ongoing activities of those within the department’s concrete obelisk home? I suggest that understanding what the department ‘is’ in this way, is an important consideration when trying to understand particular policy developments such as those highlighted above.

Drawing on ‘elite’ research interviews conducted with nearly 100 policy participants (including ministers, senior civil servants, MPs, and many more), I argued that there exist four ‘Ministries’:

  • A liberal department centred upon justice and fairness;
  • One determined to achieve the rehabilitation of offenders;
  • One obsessed with public protection;
  • One steeped in new managerialism

For some the Ministry of Justice is (or was) the ‘balancing department’, ‘the ones who did the checks and balances’ (research quotes from civil servants). For others, public protection is the dominant paradigm: avoiding high profile, serious incidents in the community, and ensuring ‘security of the [prison] estate’ (research quote from special adviser) is the overriding concern.

For others still, rehabilitation was the raison d’etre of the department (those parts tasked with prisons and probation policy, in particular). While often operating more at the level of rhetoric than reality, it was a ‘noble aim’ that sustained the department (civil servant), and indeed recurs in public debate with striking frequency.

Finally, for some managerialism had come to dominate, with aspirations for ‘an end-to-end criminal justice system’ (Lord Falconer, evidence to Constitutional Affairs Committee, 2007) flowing into benchmarking of prison services against the private sector, and talk of ‘capability gaps’, ‘business critical requirements’ and ‘doing better for less’.

These traditions – ideas about what the department is, and what it is for  – collide and combine: they compete. In turn the department has been buffeted by a series of dilemmas: questions that raise profound questions about its nature and role. These include:

  • Is its political head a judicial representative (in his role as Lord Chancellor) or a government minister (as Justice Secretary)? Can he or she be both?
  • Is the Ministry of Justice a centralised department, or an assortment of largely discreet parts?
  • Are the ‘policy’ and ‘operational’ aspects (of prisons, probation, legal aid, and so on) to be fused, or kept separate?
  • Is the goal of the department patient implementation of policy, or political responsiveness to immediate events?

These concerns, and developing such ‘internal’ narratives of a government department, may seem inward-looking, self-regarding, and to pale into insignificance compared to the serious concerns identified at the beginning of this blog post.

But as I have argued in a recent paper for the British Journal of Criminology, the activity in any department is characterized by a complex interplay between perceived conditions ‘out there’ (austerity, election cycles, and so on), ‘internal’ considerations (informed by the traditions and dilemmas identified above) and work on specific policy areas.

Therefore, in short, if one seeks to understand developments in a particular policy area – and as importantly, to consider how to achieve positive change in that field – a crucial part of this enterprise requires understanding this ‘internal’ aspect of policymakers’ concerns.


The working paper ‘Decentring the UK Ministry/s of Justice’ is available here

The finalized paper is published as a chapter entitled ‘What is Penal Policy? Traditions and practices in the UK Ministry of Justice’, in Narrative Policy Analysis: Cases in decentred policy, edited by RAW Rhodes and published by Palgrave Macmillan in May 2018.

The paper ‘The Policymakers’ Dilemma: Change, continuity and enduring rationalities of penal policy’ is published in the British Journal of Criminology and available here

[1] Ministry of Justice responsibilities were previously held by the Home Office and the Lord Chancellor’s Department.



Dr Harry Annison, Southampton Law School, Southampton University

Email: h.annison@soton.ac.uk

Twitter: @HarryAnnison

Website: https://www.southampton.ac.uk/law/about/staff/ha1y12.page


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