Chris Grayling’s probation reforms have achieved their primary objective: namely, to make Mr Grayling a member of the Government people have heard of. He has achieved headlines that Malcolm Tucker, hero of The Thick of It, would be proud of and placed him nicely as a challenger to Prime Minister Cameron should the Conservatives lose the next election.
Things aren’t quite as bad as the Blair years but Ministers in the Government change so rapidly on the basis of cock-op, patronage and personal ambition that only the most dedicated observers are able to keep up. The best example is transport where after eight Secretaries of State in seven years it is little wonder our roads and railways are in chaos and we can’t make a decision on a third runway at Heathrow.
Prisons and Justice have fared little better. Long-term appointments based on skills and competences with external scrutiny are just a dream. Whatever we may think of the American political system the likes of Condoleza Rice, Hilary Clinton and latterly John Kerry were nominated by presidents but only appointed after scrutiny by a Congressional committee with a four-year appointment taken for granted.
The consequences in the UK are policy-based evidence and decisions aimed at personal self-aggrandizement rather than the betterment of society.
Grayling has imported the principles of his failed Work Programme from his brief period in DWP into the criminal justice system. Billions of pounds will go to private sector organisations as civil servants fail to set appropriate metrics for payment and, as former Cabinet Secretary Gus O’Donnel has opined, struggle in this new world without skills in procurement and contract management.
Charities will not be able to pay the ‘live now, pay later’ game. A handful may risk precarious sub-contracts but most will continue as they are now, fighting for survival.
No-one disputes the principals of what Grayling purports to want to do. Some short-termers do need support. Some, such as Chris Huhne and Vicky Pryce do not. Needs and risk assessment should be the key influence on policy and expenditure. Mentors can add value but they need very careful selection, training, support and supervision. None of this is free. Supervision of prisoners is a highly skilled task and not for someone on a zero-based contract paid minimum wage, as many private sector employees are required to be. Providing security guards for the Olympics is not the same as managing difficult and damaged people leading chaotic and disorganised lives.
One thing lost in the media furore around the release on electronic tag of Huhne and Pryce is that the majority of those eligible for such release fail to get approval because they have nowhere to go and no-one to support them. They stay in prison, not because they are a danger to society but because they are socially excluded and have been made more so by a short and highly disruptive period in custody.
Hidden in the recent announcements was reference to the provision of more resettlement prisons and a reorganisation of the prison estate. Given that we release 60-80,000 prisoners a year and that as a result many prisoners are close to release, it has always made sense to have a significant part of the estate focused on getting prisoners out rather than keeping in expensive custody those with no desire to escape.
There are currently only two prisons designated as ‘resettlement prisons’, Blantyre House and Kirklevington. Talk has also returned about community prisons and keeping people close to home or at least near home in the run-up to release. There is nothing new in all this apart from the actual implementation of such a policy. The Corston Report over five years ago made precisely such recommendations for women. It was universally applauded but kicked firmly into the long grass. A review of the women’s prison estate is currently underway with an opportunity for innovation and change along Corston lines. It will be a great pity if it simply follows the Government mantra of economies of scale, closing small facilities favoured by Corston and setting up female facilities in men’s Titan Jails.
Doing things better and more efficiently in the criminal justice system will cost less in the long-term. Locking people up is expensive and easy. Getting and keeping them out is more difficult but cheaper. The solutions lie in following the evidence, not in political and ideological dogma.
John is Professor of Applied Social Sciences at the University of Durham, author and freelance criminal justice consultant. He worked in the Prison Service for 25 years and governed three prisons – Belmarsh, Swaleside and Brixton - and spent three years as an inspector of prisons.