The Ministry of Justice and the Saudis: the unanswered questions

[Note added 27th January 2015, I eventually got answers, see this detailed post.]

So yesterday I asked the press office of the Ministry of Justice questions about its £5.9 million “commercial” proposal to the punishment system Saudi Arabia (see here and here):

1. Can I please have a copy of the MoU signed between the Secretary of State and Saudi

2. Can I please have a copy of the commercial proposal put to the Saudis

3. Can you provide full details to what is to be offered to the Saudis under the commercial proposal

4. Can you provide set out the extent of the civil service resources which are to be used in the proposal

5. When is the proposal expected to be signed?

6. What are the answers to Amnesty’s questions as follows:

Beyond the usual aspirational language, can Chris Grayling demonstrate that Just Solutions international will actually be able to concretely improve detention practices in Saudi Arabia without becoming complicit in abuse?
For example, is JSi going to be challenging and seeking to prevent abuses when it comes across malpractice, and indeed what human rights safeguards and training are going to be built into any programme?

7. What is the current budget for JSi [Just Solutions international, the (supposed) commercial vehicle being used by MoJ]?

8. Other than the mid-term report, what mention has there been of JSi in any official publications?

9. What is the headcount for JSi?

10. Who paid for the “.com” website for JSi and why is it not a “.gov.uk” website?

11. Why has the Secretary of State now said he is looking at the Saudi proposal carefully? What does this mean in practice?

12. Please set out the commercial experience/expertise of those engaged in the JSi project? A quick look at open-source sources reveals little or no commercial experience/expertise at all.

13. Please identify all private sector organisations/consultancies involved in the JSi project.

None of these questions would seem difficult to answer, and they should not be controversial.

Today I had the response:

“At this point in time we have no further comment to add from what we said at the weekend on this issue:

“A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said:

“Just Solutions international provides knowledge and expertise of prison and offender management services to international organisations and governments who work with offenders.

“It has been government policy for many years to work with overseas governments and help them develop their criminal justice systems, utilising that knowledge to bring funds to the public purse.

“JSi does not work with countries unless it is completely safe to do so and details of any contracts will be made public when agreed.”

This seemed odd, so I followed up asking why the MoJ was refusing to answer each of the individual questions I posed and, in particular, what was the reason why MoJ are not disclosing the MoU referred to here.

The response:

“Sorry, we’re not going to give a running commentary on this.”

I had not asked for a running commentary, or for any “commentary” at all, just for the information referred to in my questions on a matter of public interest.

The MoJ and the Saudis

Over at the Financial Times website I have a post on the Ministry of Justice’s proposed deal with the punishment system in Saudi Arabia.  Please go and read it – access is free (for a number of pieces a month) though registration is required.

The piece was prompted by the revelation of the deal by David Hencke late last week.  The government report which mentions the deal is here and it is described on page 6 as:

“Just Solutions international (JSi), is the commercial brand for the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) promoting products and services to international justice markets.

“In August 2014, JSi submitted a £5.9m proposal to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Ministry of Finance to conduct a training needs analysis across all the learning and development programmes within the Saudi Arabian Prison Service.”

As I set out in the FT post, there is a lot worrying about this deal.

The “JSi” does not exist separately to the MoJ: it is just a gimmicky label some civil servants have given themselves whilst they affect to be international service providers.  It is, in reality, the MoJ providing the service on “commercial” terms, diverting scarce UK civil service resources to Saudi Arabia.

But even more problematic is the secrecy: the details of the proposed deal will not be provided until after the deal has been signed, and so we have no idea how robust JSi can be in challenging any abuses which it encounters.

In essence it smacks of a bright idea to raise cash without thinking through whether such an engagement is a helpful thing for a hard-pressed MoJ, or whether it will do any good to one of the most brutal punishment systems in the world.

At worst, it provides a veneer of legitimacy to a dreadful regime whilst showing the UK government’s priority is to simply make money out of the punishment system of Saudi Arabia.