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Chris Grayling’s Probation Reforms Have Cost People Their Lives

As the Government announces plans to renationalise probation, reversing the catastrophic privatisation of the service, former MP Ian Lucas explains how the murder of a constituent obliterated his faith in the criminal justice system.

Chris Grayling’s Probation ReformsHave Cost People Their Lives

As the Government announces plans to renationalise probation, reversing the catastrophic privatisation of the service, former MP Ian Lucas explains how the murder of a constituent damaged his faith in the criminal justice system

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Nick Churton was murdered in March 2017 at his home by Jordan Davidson.

The attack on him in his own home was so horrific – involving a machete, a knife and extreme violence – that the then Attorney-General Robert Buckland appealed successfully to increase the tariff on the life sentence imposed on Davidson when he pleaded guilty to the murder in December 2017.

Though Davidson committed the crime, he was free to do so because of a criminal justice system stripped bare by years of budget reductions and the introduction of a new, part-privatised probation system by then Justice Secretary Chris Grayling that did not work and have resulted in gross failures by the probation service – the professionals who supervise people released from prison and those serving sentences in the community – and the police. 

Nick’s death resulted from one of a series of armed attacks which Davidson committed over a few days, after being released on bail from police custody in Wrexham.

When a Government makes political choices, as has been the case since 2010 with our criminal justice system, it impacts people’s lives. The impact on Nick Churton contributed to his death. His murder poses dreadful failings in the Government’s changes to the probation system since 2015 and also the failure of the authorities tasked with doing so to investigate those failings fully, openly and promptly.

The situation with probation is so bad that the same Government that introduced the changes is now reversing them, following its decision to reverse cuts to police numbers since 2010.

But for Nick Churton and his family, it’s too late.

I first heard the terrible details of Nick’s death from a journalist.

In December 2017, Jez Hemming of the North Wales’ Daily Post was in court, reporting on the sentencing hearing of Davidson for the murder. When Jez sent me the facts of the case, it was immediately obvious to me, a former solicitor, that there had been serious failings in the way Davidson had been supervised by the criminal justice system. I saw immediately that he was on licence, subject to the supervision of a community rehabilitation company (CRC).

CRCs were introduced by Grayling as part of the Government’s part-privatisation of the probation Service, which until then, had been run entirely by the public sector. Grayling boasted that, for the first time, those released from prison following short sentences would be supervised. They would be done so with a departmental budget in the Ministry of Justice reduced more than any other since 2010, even in this time of savage budget cuts. 

Davidson was released from prison in December 2016. We now know, as a result of a report released more than three years after Nick’s death, that he had broken his licence conditions, imposed when he left prison, eight times in the four months before he killed Nick, at a time when he was nominally under “supervision”. At no time was he recalled to prison. 

On the final occasion, after Davidson was arrested for possession of a knife in the middle of the night in Wrexham town centre, he was released on bail by the police without the community rehabilitation company even being informed of the offence by the police. The system was so dysfunctional that there was no prescribed rule that someone on licence should have their arrest reported to their probation supervisor.

Within four days, Davidson killed Nick Churton.

When I read the details of the case, I immediately asked the then Chief Constable of North Wales Police why Davidson had been released on bail. I was told that this matter was subject to an investigation by the Independent Office of Police Conduct (IOPC). 

This was not true. In fact, both North Wales Police and the IOPC had failed to tell me that an IOPC inquiry had started eight months earlier, as the rules required. But the release of Davidson by the police and their extraordinary failure to inform the CRC of Davidson’s arrest was not even made subject to an IOPC investigation until May 2018 – 14 months after Nick’s death.

Nick’s family had not been told either by North Wales Police or by the IOPC that Davidson was released on bail by the police days before Nick was murdered. If I had not told the family and the public, I believe this fact would never have been known.

Having failed to tell me of the IOPC inquiry in March 2017, and misleading me as to what was covered by it, the then Chief Constable’s conduct was excused by the IOPC on the basis that he did not mislead me deliberately and that he had delegated this most heinous of cases to a more junior officer. 

The IOPC report discloses that there was no requirement for the police to disclose the fact that Davidson had been arrested to the CRC that was supervising him. The police officer involved says he cannot remember the detail of the case because of the length of time it took for the IOPC report to be completed. The recommendations from the IOPC took more than three years after Nick’s death to emerge and they did so after the CRC in Wales had been stripped of the probation contract for inadequate performance. 

The delay is entirely the fault of those running the system, who did not start obvious investigations and inquiries immediately.

As an MP and as a lawyer, I have heard the constant refrain within the criminal justice system that there should be openness and transparency when things go wrong.

At every stage in this case I encountered concealment. First, I was not told of the IOPC inquiry or its terms of reference, as I should have been, when it was first set up in March 2017. Second, when I found out the facts of the case and asked the police about their errors, I was misled by them about what was being investigated. Third, Nick’s family were told of police mistakes by the press and I, rather than by the criminal justice authorities. Fourth, probation reports about the case were treated as internal government documents and have never been publicly disclosed or shown to me as the then MP for Wrexham.

I was not briefed privately about the case by either the IOPC or North Wales Police despite its horrific violence and the case occurring in the middle of a constituency I had then represented for 16 years. 

I did meet with the then Justice Ministers Rory Stewart and Robert Buckland to discuss the case but no Ministry of Justice, probation or CRC reports into the case have ever been disclosed to me or the public. The detail of the case was retained within the ministry, avoiding public scrutiny.

Fundamental errors in communication between North Wales Police and the probation authorities occurred and these were concealed from all outside the Government, criminal justice organisations and the IOPC. As a result, there has been no independent examination of the failures in the system to enable us to learn from the mistakes made. The IOPC has, throughout, failed to identify failings in the case without me first identifying those failings to it and has failed, even now, to explain errors in the terms of reference of its own inquiries.

Why did the police, the probation service and the IOPC not consider the release of Davidson on bail for an offence of violence, only to commit a murder days later, worthy of investigation?

I have no confidence in any of the criminal justice bodies involved or in the Government. The case requires an independent investigation into the conduct of all the public bodies involved and access to all relevant documents.

I met Buckland, now Justice Secretary, to discuss the case last summer and was told that I must await the release the IOPC report – which has just now been released – before he could consider ordering an independent investigation into the case. If he wishes to begin to restore any faith in our criminal justice system, he must order such an investigation now. 

Ian Lucas was the Labour MP for Wrexham from 2001-2019

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