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Written by Richard Cooke

What Will Brexit Mean to Public Services & Social Policy?

We’re now about a month on from the EU membership referendum and the country is slowly but surely gearing up for Brexit. The past few weeks have seen both economic instability and political upheaval as parliament, the British people and the world at large start to work through exactly what this means, and what will happen next.

Theresa May has already suggested that the government’s austerity-based public spending restrictions could be eased during these “non-normal” times as we negotiate to leave the EU. So how might this – and other factors – affect UK public services and social policy?

A Stumbling Block for Prison Reform?

It could reasonably be argued that the prison service – and indeed the justice system as a whole – is already in an unsettled period of change. In the past couple of years the government has effectively privatised the bulk of probation service provision by allocating around 70% of the National Probation Service’s workload to private Community Rehabilitation Companies.

Controversial as that move has been, many in the sector feel that this will be nothing compared to more wide-ranging changes forthcoming in this year’s prison reform bill. The bill – announced during the Queen’s Speech in May – was touted as the “biggest shakeup of prisons since Victorian times”, and included significant provisions for greater autonomy and accountability to be given to individual prison governors. Understandably, many see the move as a first step towards an “academy prisons” system.

Some have speculated that shifting priorities as the government deals with Brexit could lead to prison reform plans being revised or even dropped altogether; however, new Justice Secretary Liz Truss has stated that: “We have an ambitious agenda to modernise the prison estate, improve education and empower governors,” adding that she intends to “set out the next steps for this agenda in the coming weeks.”

With rising rates of violence and prisoner self-harm being reported, we can only hope that much-needed prison reforms – and the budgets to implement them – don’t become victims of the next round of Brexit-related political manoeuvring.

The Junior Doctors’ Dispute

Although the media focus on the junior doctors’ dispute over the proposed new contract faded into the background somewhat before and after the EU referendum, the conflict between NHS staff and Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt over this issue was never in any danger of just vanishing. A further vote on the contract at the beginning of July saw 58% of junior doctors and medical students reject the deal, leading to the resignation of Dr Johann Malawana, Chair of the BMA’s Junior Doctors Committee.

Despite the rejection of the proposed contract – which had previously been approved by Dr Malawana and the BMA, and endorsed by the royal medical colleges – Jeremy Hunt seems set to impose the conditions of the contract on a phased basis starting in October. However, a court case launched by campaign group Justice for Health – which has now reached the High Court – is seeking to stop the imposition of the contract, arguing that Hunt is acting outside of his powers as Secretary of State for Health.

The next few weeks are likely to be make or break for the proposed junior doctors’ contract. However, it is perhaps significant that in Theresa May’s otherwise fairly brutal cabinet reshuffle after stepping into the PM’s role post-referendum, Jeremy Hunt kept his job as Health Secretary – to the surprise of many political observers. May’s decision to keep Hunt in the role could arguably be seen as an endorsement and commitment on the part of the government to see through the imposition of the new contract, despite ongoing opposition.

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