"Despite our attempts to toughen the law and reform the criminal
justice system - reform that has often uncovered problems long
untouched - the criminal justice system is still the public service
most distant from what reasonable people want."
Leaving to one side the whole question of what he might mean by 'reasonable', it's important to recognise the political implications of treating criminal justice as a public service. I think there are three fundamental issues here, but there may be other ways of depicting this.
Firstly, regardless of your views on choice and privatisation, public services are fundamentally about consumption of one sort or another. There has never been any question that the private sector can deliver good health care for instance, only about its capacity to distribute it equally. Marxists describe public services as 'collective consumption': things which capitalism relies on, but cannot be trusted to create for itself. With the possible exception of education, there is nothing immediately offensive about a private company offering health-care. transportation, electricity, and other public services.
Criminal justice, on the other hand, consists of two activities that the state is uniquely empowered to do: determine society's notion of adequate retribution and enact violence (communitarians and many New Labour types would say that the former would be better off in the hands of 'the community', whoever that might be). It is therefore possible to be opposed to even a single instance of a private company hand-cuffing someone, regardless of how this 'service' is 'distributed' across society.
Secondly, to treat criminal justice as a service dehumanises criminals. Pest control is a 'service', but rats and cockroaches are external to society; muggers and even rapists are part of society, regardless of whether you think they have rights. To treat a crime as something requiring better service suggests that the 'consumer' of that service simply needs to be relieved of some alien phenomenon, in the same way they are relieved of illness. Crime then becomes a form of virus - a feeling of fear, mixed with falling property prices, but not really a social phenomenon at all. Dealing with it becomes a technical rather than a political challenge. (This reminds me of the moment of genius on Have I Got News for You, when Ian Hislop was informed that crime victims were now to be referred to as 'customers' by the police; with a look of utter disgust, Hislop spluttered "so what is the criminal going to be called? The contractor?").
Third, treating criminal justice as a public service brings it within the constraints of fiscal policy. It is only a short step to then discussing how it can be made more efficient, which immediately compromises it. This is already occurring, as I discussed in this New Statesman piece. The legal system is fiendishly expensive, and cartels of lawyers have no shame when it comes to extracting millions from the taxpayer, but sadly there is no way of stream-lining this without fundamentally watering down its supreme place in society. The same thing will occur if/when they start talking about choice in this 'public service': could I be allowed to choose which court my mugger gets tried in?!
To put it another way, by viewing criminal justice as analogous to health (something we can have more and more of...), how can this government ever discover the limit (other than a fiscal limit) to the pursuit of criminal justice, either in terms of surveillance or in terms of punishment?