When you find your view is the consensus view, in fact no one is taking a contrary view, it's wise now and again just to step outside and do a reality check.
So having just written about the undoubtedly appalling state of Birmingham prison, I decided to sample all 10 of the Inspectorates' reports published this year so far. [Granted, the Inspectorate is not itself infallible. In retrospect, its report last year on Birmingham now looks over-optimistic. But overall, its methodology is principled, evidenced, balanced, and its judgements are objective and trusted.]
I was taken aback by the positive findings for the majority of these 10 prisons. Reports on Wandsworth and Belmarsh were critical – but have a look at these extracts from reports on 6 prisons and YOIs below – including (Guardianistas please note!) two operated by the private sector, one of them G4S.
Some of this might seem a tad generous. Hull. for example, where incidents of self harm are nearly four times what they were at the start of this decade, and assaults nearly three times higher. To say it compares well with other locals just shows how far standards have fallen. Or Oakwood, where assaults have more than doubled in just 3 years. But none of these are 'failing' prisons, either in the Inspectorate's assessment or MoJ's, and some are doing pretty well. And deserve to be recognised as such.
This does not change the overall picture. Violence and self harm across the whole system are double what they were just a few years ago and are still rising, drugs are rife, ), there is gross overcrowding and numbers are still rising, regimes have been brutally curtailed, MoJ itself rates nearly half its prisons as giving cause for concern (compared just to 3% in 2010-11!). But we should recognise that there are still some prisons where staff are doing a decent job in difficult circumstances – and that the worst problems tend to be concentrated in the local prisons, further cause for doubting the efficacy of short sentences.
Note: the Inspectorate's ratings are against four headings: safety, respect, purposeful activity and rehabilitation/release planning. Ratings are: good;reasonably good, not sufficiently good, poor.
HMP Oakwood - mens' Cat C resettlement - G4S
Ratings: safety, rehabilitation: reasonably good; respect, purposeful activity: good
We found Oakwood to be an impressive institution; against all four of our tests of a healthy prison, we judged outcomes to be reasonably good or better. As such, the assessments we made were consistent with a story of steady and sustained improvement after what was a testing start six years ago, and this despite risks represented by the size of the population and inherent risks posed by those held.
Hull - mens' local - public
Ratings: safety, respect, purposeful activity, rehabilitation: all reasonably good
We last inspected in 2014 when we found mixed outcomes reflecting the challenges faced by similar prisons, but Hull was working well in comparison to most other local prisons. At this inspection we found a not too dissimilar picture, with outcomes that we judged to be reasonably good against all four of our tests of a healthy prison. In the context of the challenges faced by the prison system in recent years, this was not an insignificant achievement.
Wetherby YOI – public
Keppel Unit is a specialist unit within Wetherby
Wetherby ratings: safety: not sufficiently good; respect, purposeful activity: reasonably good; rehabilitation, good
Keppel Unit ratings: safety respect, rehabilitation: all good; purposeful activity, reasonably good
….it was reassuring to see the very real progress that had been made at both Wetherby and the Keppel unit. By any standards this was a good inspection, with improved assessments in every healthy prison test at both sites, except for that of safety at Wetherby, which remained ‘not sufficiently good’. I was last at Wetherby two years ago and the positive change in many areas was clear to see. A far more positive attitude permeated the establishment, relationships between staff and boys were generally positive, with many staff showing what seemed to be genuine commitment and indeed, in some cases, a passion for their work.
Dovegate - mens' Cat B Therapeutic prison - SERCO
Ratings: safety, respect: good; purposeful activity, rehabilitation: reasonably good
Dovegate TP was impressive. A national resource, it was part of the offender personality disorder pathway. It worked with men intensively over a period of years to better understand their problematic behaviour, attitudes and thinking patterns and to help them change. Most men who reached the end of the process made progress, and over 80% of respondents in our survey said they felt they had done something at the prison to make it less likely they would reoffend in the future.
Low Newton - women's' resettlement prison and YOI – public
Ratings: safety, rehabilitation: reasonably good; respect, purposeful activity: good
Low Newton remained an excellent women’s prison where leaders and staff understood and managed the complex mix of risks and needs well. Some robust action was being taken to address the use of illicit drugs and associated violence and bullying, and staff were skilled in challenging poor behaviour when it occurred. They also provided excellent care when needed, which many women told us they appreciated. The regime was purposeful, and the generally good resettlement provision supported efforts to rehabilitate the women. We commend the work of the governor and her team at Low Newton,
Werrington - boys' YoI - public
Ratings: safety, purposeful activity: reasonably good; respect, rehabilitation good
We found not only that standards had been maintained, but that in the area of respect they had improved and now merited our highest assessment of ‘good’. By any standards this was a good inspection, and showed what could be achieved in an area of custody that has drawn considerable adverse comment in recent times, not least from this inspectorate. Much of the progress that had been made had come about as the result of good partnership working with other bodies, including in education, health and the voluntary sector. It was also particularly pleasing to note the very positive response to previous inspection recommendations.
In my recent post on probation privatisation (here), I noted that while Gauke claimed the private sector has cut reoffending by 2%, he didn't say how the NPS had done, but that I would ask.
MoJ say they do not in fact know how the NPS compares. The performance of the CRCs is measured against a 2011 baseline. Because the NPS isn't paid by results, no one thought to establish a baseline for their performance. So we don't know, and won't now ever know, whether the public sector did better or worse than the CRCs.
That is pretty odd. Granted, Grayling himself of course did not need that information, because he already 'knew', in his Trumpian way, that the private sector would do better. (Same reason he aborted the payment by results pilots in prisons). He was perhaps wise not to measure the actual performance of the NPS, because reality has an unpleasant habit of biting back at people who just 'know' things.
But I am surprised that officials did not think it worth knowing whether the public or private sector are 'better' at cutting reoffending. After all, the NPS in its present form is a new organisation, dealing with a new and more difficult mix of people: yet MoJ seem to have no interest in knowing whether it is successful. [MoJ point out that the case mix of the NPS and CRCs are very different so the two aren't directly comparable, so the reoffending rate for the NPS offenders would always tend to be higher - true, but I see no reason why you should compare the % reduction in the reconviction rate, if you see what I mean. ]
But I note that that in the 2 years before privatisation, when the only operator was the public sector NPS, there was a drop in reoffending for those given community sentences by 4.3%. So, if you believe that probation's success can be measured by the reoffending rate, the public sector before privatisation did twice as well as the CRCs after privatisation. Tables C1a of the latest 'proven reoffending tables' here. (MoJ will say that's not comparing like with like exactly and that's true, it isn't – but whose fault is that, MoJ? You chose ignorance, so now we have to use whatever data we can.) So the line about CRCs making a difference is nonsense, even in its own terms.
For my own part, for all the reasons set out in my earlier post, I do not believe that changes in the reconviction rate are reliable as a measure of the achievement or failure of the correctional services.
Any more than changes in the overall crime rate (of which reoffending is, of course, just a small part) represent the success of otherwise of the criminal justice system.
NOTE [added 1 September: I have received quite a few comments privately on this piece; I have summarised some of general interest at the end]
I have been reading the report of the internal MoJ inquiry into the major riot at Birmingham prison on 16 December 2016, which had been withheld, but then released this week following a Freedom of Information Act application. It has been redacted, but not much.
The report, by a former Director of what was then the National Offender Management Service (NOMS), is a most illuminating document, detailed, balanced, thoughtful. It not only casts light on how Birmingham prison reached the dire state described by the Chief Inspector in his Urgent Notification last week, but vividly illustrates perennial truths about how to run – and how not to run prisons – and what a difficult and important a job that is. Anyone seriously interested in prisons ought to find time to read it.
It comprises first an analysis of what happened on the day of the riot, and second how the prison had deteriorated in the preceding 12 months, to the extent that staff had effectively already lost control well before the riot.
I am not primarily interested in the actual riot, but the detailed, minute by minute account of the loss of control is as gripping as any film – quite terrifying. It sets the scene by describing how staff shortages and high turnover over many months placed staff, inadequately supported by management, under intolerable pressures and lead to disrupted regimes which in turn fueled prisoner boredom and discontent, and how staff gradually ceded control of the wings to prisoners. Then, on the day, an act of defiance by a couple of difficult prisoners gradually escalated, needlessly, as several opportunities to contain things and regain control were lost due to muddle and lack of grip by middle and senior management. Prisoners reacted to indecision by turning to violence, and soon even those who'd have preferred to stay out of it felt obliged to join in.
But the report also records some acts of great courage by staff, in rescuing vulnerable prisoners from danger and holding vital control points despite ferocious assaults by groups of prisoners. One scene sticks in my mind: one wing had been lost, staff were running for safety, but one staff member saw a vulnerable prisoner who he knew would be severely beaten or worse, ran back at great risk to get him and they both then pelted down the wing for safety, closely pursued by a mob. 'The PCO described his good fortune at managing to unlock and secure the gate first time...' I bet he did, but not in those words! Once safe, the prisoner vomited with terror and relief and then would not leave the PCOs side. G4S failed abysmally - but some of their staff past the test alright. I do hope their courage and professionalism has been recognised.
The second part of the report analysis how control was eroded over the preceding year or so and it is hugely illuminating.
First of all it confirms what I have been saying, that the prison which improved markedly after transferring from public to private sector management in 2011. Two things confirm that. The first is research by Alison Liebling and others which showed improvements on 7 dimensions of prisoners' 'quality of life, as defined and measured by them: ‘respect/courtesy’; ‘humanity’; ‘decency’; ‘care for the vulnerable’; ‘staff-prisoner relationships’; ‘fairness’; and ‘personal autonomy’. Even more marked were improvements in the quality of staff life, including relationships with line and senior management – an extraordinary and important achievement, considering the feelings aroused by of the competition in 2011 and the highly contentious move of existing staff to the private sector, the first time this had ever happened and (as I know) long the source of much worry amongst policy makers (1).
This progression is confirmed by NOMS own Prison Rating System, a sophisticated analysis of many aspects of prison operation, over the same period. I reproduce a graph, showing this improvement according to the PRS after privatisation in 2011, up to January 2015, and the precipitous decline thereafter. (Note the steady decline in public sector prisons right across this period).
Chart 1: ratings of Birmingham and other local prisons, NOMS Prison Rating System
Thus, two lessons immediately: 1) privatisation was not the issue (in fact, privatisation had initially lead to much improvement, albeit from the low level in which previous public operation had left the prison); and 2) the decline began way back - two and half years ago.
The report doesn't help pinpoint quite why the prison started its rapid decline around January 2017 though there is some suggestion that the drug problem became much more serious around then, and it was just at that time that assault and self harm rates began to accelerate upwards across the whole system, so the cause or causes weren't peculiar to Birmingham.
Staffing levels, and management of staff, are central issues. Mapping the data from this report onto data I previously obtained under FoI, budgeted staffing levels (302 PCOs) have not changed significantly since 2013, and probably not since privatsation in 2011. Neither budgeted staffing levels not the number of posts vacant (about 3%) were out of line with other prisons – on my analysis, the staff:prisoner ratio was considerably better than Doncaster or Thameside, and about the same as Parc.
Chart2: Prisoners per PCOs at Birmingham and comparator contracted prisons
Source: PQs and FoI applications
Note: figures affected by reduced pop after 2016 riot
But the staffing situation was nevertheless very difficult indeed – dangerous, in fact - for several interconnected reasons:
Thus the planned regime simply wasn't deliverable with available staff numbers. There weren't enough staff on landings, prison routines were constantly disrupted and many staff were new, insufficiently trained and scared. As we know from previous breakdowns in privately run jails (3), this quickly become a downward spiral - with new staff appalled at what they are faced with and choosing to quit or, if they stay, adopting passive and defensive behaviours rather than challenging misbehaving prisoners. Staff complained that they were poorly supported: 'new staff....reported feeling ignored and marginalised, and made to feel like a nuisance when they asked for help'.
Management was suprisingly weak in many other ways. Managers insisted staff maintain a 'full regime' despite low staff availability - but it wasn't even clear to staff (or the inspectors) exactly what 'the regime' was supposed to be! Policy on unlocking was also unclear and staff seemed to make it up as they went along.
The consequence of all this was a gradual retreat from authority, a process so familiar in prisons. Prisoners bullied and conditioned staff into unlocking everyone, whether entitled or not, and the IEP scheme, meant to relate privileges to behaviour, was hugely undermined. Unlocking everyone despite dangerously low staff availability became the norm, with staff unable to reconcile safe staffing minima with management's demand that they to keep prisoners unlocked (4). Staff over relied on prisoner volunteers to keep order, and some of these were not averse to using violence to do that job (and possibly some had other agendas of their own). The jail really had been turned over to prisoners to run! Extraordinarily, prisoners who wanted to be unlocked into this unsafe environment were asked to sign that they accepted the risks, an absolute abdication of responsibility by staff (and G4S). Staff seemed to loose control of such a basic thing as movement around the prison. Discipline was effectively abandoned - in one period only 1 in 6 serious assaults were referred to the police, of 655 cases so referred only 1 in 10 lead to a conviction. Violence went unpunished and drug taking went unchallenged. Vulnerable prisoners were not properly protected.
Prisoners' attitudes in such circumstances varies – some relish the lack of control, but others find it threatening and difficult, finding they were unable get the help prisoners need from staff to get things done:
“There as too much freedom,we like freedom but there weren't enough staff to deal with it. You weren't made to do anything, no discipline, no structure ...You couldn't find any staff...they let us get away with anything. Every day was a party. But boredom leads to badness”.
“Boredom leads to badness” - that should be inscribed above the gate of every jail.
The result was soaring rates of drug taking, self harm, and prisoner on prisoner and prisoner on staff violence.
Chart 3: number of PCOs, assaults, self harm incidents at Birmingham, all per prisoner
Note: PCOs on right hand axis, other data on left axis
The management response was hopelessly inadequate. There are processes to ensure data such as assault and disciplinary rates are regularly reviewed in jails and that Governors/Directors regularly assess the stability of the jail. At Birmingham management assessed the jail in the weeks before the riot as 'low' i.e. 'there is no evidence of increased stability or instability above the norm'. That had been the rating throughout 2016, as every indicator turned glaringly red. The report suggests that management had been conditioned to accept very high levels of violence as the 'new normal'. In plain English, management had completely lost it.
And not only management. Each private prison has a number of MoJ officials – 'Controllers' – permanently working inside the jail to monitor operations. Here the report is more reticent, but it appears to confirms what a number of commentators have remarked on, a tendency of the Controllers to retreat into bureaucratic box ticking role. If they had walked the walk and talked to staff and prisoners, and taken a more common-sense over view of the state of the jail they could not have missed the seriousness of its rapid deterioration. But the role of Controller has always seemed unclear, and it's a difficult job to fill, because you need able experienced Governor grades, but such people would rather be off running their own jail.
What does the report, on a riot 20 months ago, tell us about the run up to the Chief Inspectors extraordinary intervention last week? Difficult, because until the full report on this most recent inspection is published, we don't know what happened in those 20 months. But I think we can already say:
More general thoughts prompted by reading this extraordinary document:
(1) In my time it was thought too risky to attempt without much reducing prisoner numbers during transition, something we never had space to do.
(2) Rates this high were common in privately run prisons in the early 2000s and as recounted in my book, were key in bringing several to crisis point. Public sector rates were then very low – possibly too low. I had been told that changes in the labour market after the 2008 Crash had brought rates right down, to 10% or so: but clearly, not everywhere. The Crash feed through into austerity and big cuts in starting pay in the public sector, raising public sector churn rates and contributing to problems they have been experiencing. One conclusion is that Government should publish staffing levels in all prisons, public or private, and also vacancy and churn rates
(3) Particularly, at Ashfield in the early 2000s, described in my book, in the section 'Four prisons in trouble' – the only other time that Government has intervened to take over a failing privately run prison.
(4) Management's insistence on keeping prisoners unlocked, even though for many, there was nothing for them to do is odd, because it appears there was nothing in the contract to require this.
(5) Curiously, there were significant financial penalties in respect of this prison in 2011-12 (£95k) and 2012-13 (£205k) – the very years when the prison was doing OK! See Commons WA 5.10.16
(6) “Overall, Altcourse was in some key areas bucking the trend when compared to other local prisons. While it still faced significant challenges around safety, the downward trend in violence and anti-social behaviour was highly creditable. This was in no small part due to the energetic and proactive approach taken by the prison. Levels of self-harm, while still high, were also decreasing and there had been a real focus on ensuring men with these vulnerabilities were identified and cared for. This had been supported by a positive staff culture, a good focus on decency, and an excellent regime that was being delivered consistently….. the director and his team were providing strong leadership, enabling a highly positive staff culture and delivering good outcomes in many key areas. Overall, Altcours e showed that a local prison can provide fundamentally decent treatment and conditions for prisoners, despite facing many of the same challenges as the rest of the prison service. There was much here from which others could learn.“
Stick that in your pipe and smoke it, Guardian!
(7) 'Crime, justice and protecting the public'. Home Office, 1990
Rory Stewart's promise to resign if he doesn't cut assault rates in 10 violent prisons by at least 10 % in the next 12 months – very precise figures, those! – looks at first sight entirely admirable (1). Brave, certainly, even foolhardy, given the relentless upward surge of violence ever since his predecessors cut prison staffing levels by 25% in 2013 (assaults up another 15% last year alone). And a welcome change from the usual evasiveness of politicians. And no one can doubt Stewart's passionate belief that prisons must do better – or that he is the one to make them do it. It's rare that we hear such belief in public services from a Tory politician, in this age of austerity, and Brexit.
And yet, it's an odd and, I think, inappropriate thing to say.
Those with long memories may recall Martin Narey's threat, made in 2001, to resign if he couldn't turn failing prisons around (2). But there's a big difference: Narey was chief executive. It was his job to run prisons. Stewart is minister, not chief executive; though, as I have previously noted, he continually blurs the two roles. (And it's noticeable that since he arrived, the actual chief executive, Michael Spurr, is never heard from or seen (3)). But the execution of a complex programme of intervention in 10 prisons, to see what can be done to reduce violence – that, surely, is an executive job, for which the chief executive should be answerable? (Odd to think how hard Michael Howard fought to avoid resigning, on the grounds that 'operations' was not the responsibility of ministers! (4)).
The other difference is that Narey was battling decades of weak, poor management: his threat was a message aimed at the old guard of the prison service, who did not see a need to change. Stewart doesn't have that problem. Actually, what he is battling is the consequence of policy decisions by his immediate predecessors - gross under-staffing: not the fault of officials, but of ministers. Narey's threat had a point: Stewart's does not.
Is it, anyway, a resigning matter - for chief executive or ministers? After all – isn't it a bit odd for a minister to promise resignation over not cutting assaults by 10%, when no minister has offered to resigned over the doubling of assaults so far? And if the reduction is say only 5%, or 10% in some prisons, but less in others - or if it is decided there's a better way, maybe by restoring staffing levels - how does it then make sense to resign? There seems a histrionic air about this, rather than sound political judgement.
Stewart seems to have fallen in love with the strange but compelling world of prisons – as some outsiders do. Prisons are fascinating - because they are a world of their own, because there are so complex, because so much is at stake. It is rumoured that Stewart wants to swap the ministerial role for that of chief executive. Maybe Stewart would make a good chief exec, in due course. (Though it's a bit hard to see him as a civil servant, bowing to ministerial wishes and sensitivities – especially under a Labour Government).
But at present he's the minister, and it's a bad idea to have a minster trying to directly manage a public service, as Stewart seems intent on doing. The separation between policy making and executive management was at the heart of the Agency concept launched by the Margaret Thatcher in the '80s – with strong, visible professional leadership, empowered to run the service directly, freed from ministerial micro-management, but held publicly to account for performance within a policy framework set by ministers.
That idea enabled to prison service to turn round from being the basket case of the public sector in the early 90s, survive the fastest ever rise in numbers and innumerable scandals in that decade and become a far safer, more controlled, more decent system in the 2000s. It's a concept now empty of meaning in the case of HM Prison and Probation Service, with the motor powers of any service – its finance, HR, IT and estate services - now taken back to the centre of the MoJ, whose record in those matters is not to be envied, and the chief executive has been made invisible, while the minister assumes the management role.
The political and the managerial are rightly separate spheres, different jobs, both need doing, the one complementing the other, but requiring different skills, expertise and behaviours, though to be sure, they need to understand and respect each other. Stewart has shown remarkable grasp of the realities of prison work - but he hasn't worked in a prison, as has every head of the service since Richard Tilt in 1995, a change which in my view has made all the difference. And he shows a tendency to believe think prisons can be run like a military command – by no means the first to make that mistake (5). In my long experience as an observer of prison management, good and bad, the command and control model has its limitations: eventually, you must let Governors and their teams do the job they are paid for and trained for. It's also more than a little worrying how Stewart is always so sure that he is right. In excess, that can be a dangerous quality.
And here's the nub of the matter: as Peter Dawson, who heads the Prison Reform Trust (himself a former Governor) points out, ministers need to focus on doing the things which only ministers can do: policy, and politics (1). And this is where Stewart, and Gauke, fall down. Only minsters can tackle our over use of custody, which has caused gross overcrowding and a repeated need for massive building programmes - which are in turn overtaken by further rises in numbers. That means not just legislation, but educating the Neanderthals on his own benches, and in the Tory press (and maybe outing Labour on the issue, too) . But Stewart, while agreeing that we use prison far too much, seems already to have thrown in the towel on penal policy (6). Again, only Ministers can secure adequate funding for prisons: but Stewart shows no sign of repenting of Grayling's savage and irresponsible staffing cuts, which are at the heart of the current crisis (***). Even so, MoJ is racking up an enormous deficit which, after the retrenchment of the Grayling years, looks set to make MoJ the Black Hole of public finance, just as we move towards another recession. Nor are ministers willing to accept responsibility for the chaotic mess which Grayling's privatisation policy made of the probation service, itself a factor in the burgeoning prison crisis, as courts lose confidence in community sentences (7).
In many ways, the ministerial job is the less attractive of the two. But it is Stewart's job, and he should get on with it. And let Spurr get on with his.
*** In fact, under pressure on BBC 4's 'Today' this morning, he came close to conceding that the Grayling cuts were too deep: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/prison-officers-cuts-hmp-birmingham-g4s-rory-stewart-justice-department-a8498981.html
The traditional time for burying bad news is just as Parliament rises for the summer hols. So, no surprise that Gauke chose 27 July to announce early announced termination of the probation contracts (1). For it is a study in failure – one failure heaped upon another.
Failure to admit failure
A policy that was predicted by absolutely everyone to be bound to fail, has now been demonstrated conclusively to have failed. You might have thought therefore that the statement might include words like 'unsuccessful', if not 'failed', or even, 'sorry'. Gauke is having none of it. This isn't a statement about what went wrong, oh no, it's a 'consultation' on how everything will be done even better in future. (Those SPADs! Worth every penny!) His statement is a masterpiece of evasion. In fact, reading it, you'd be hard put to understand quite why he is terminating the CRC contracts at all. It ought to be a set text for A level politics.
First, note the title of the consultation document (2): 'strengthening' probation'. A probation service that, according to inspection reports, and to MoJ's own performance assessments (3), was performing well, has been smashed to the ground and is now lying helpless on the floor. But, hey, let's not dwell on that assault, all we are about is 'strengthening' the victim.
Then, the Big Lie: CRCs cut reoffending by 2%, and thus demonstrating the success of privatisation. But he doesn't give the source. or time frame. Nor, of course, does he say what the corresponding figure is for the NPS, similar adjusted for changes in case mix (so embarrassing, if the public sector had done just as well, or better!). I have FoI'd this information and will post it here.
Now, I have set out before why I do not believe that changes in the reconviction rate can be attributed to the work of the prison or probation services. In summary:
Graph 1: reconviction rates by disposal, 2005-16
.Source: Proven reoffending tables July 2016-September 2016, MoJ. Notes: figures are Apr-June each year. Note: New data source from Oct 2015
It is therefore simply not credible to claim that the fall in reconviction rates for those supervised by the by probation services mark the 'success' of CRCs. It is certainly possible that the work of the CRCs made some contribution, also possible that it did not – but to claim 'CRCs cut reoffending by 2%, therefore privatisation worked' is simplistic nonsense.
Gauke continues to elaborate on the 'successes'. ' Privatisation 'opened up the delivery of probation services to a broader range of providers and created the structure that we see today'. Perfectly true. The probation service was hacked to pieces, the pieces flogged off to the highest bidder and that created the chaotic mess we see today.
Then, 'there is strength in this mixed market approach, with scope for a range of providers....to continue to bring fresh, innovative ideas to probation services.' That is not the view of the Chief Inspector of Probation: 'We have seen small innovations – a peer mentoring scheme in Kent for example, and three social action projects in Durham – and some aspects of CRC operating models can be described as innovative as well. But there are few signs of innovation in resettlement work, or in other casework. Instead, well-established evidence-based approaches are on the wane, worryingly so '(6). And on through the gate services, 'the few examples of innovation we saw were on a very small scale, so are likely to have no more than a negligible impact on reducing reoffending'(7).
But the Chief Inspector does recognise some innovation - though not the kind Gauke lauds: 'Some [CRC staff] do not meet with their probation worker face-to face. Instead, they are supervised by telephone calls every six weeks or so from junior professional staff carrying 200 cases or more. I find it inexplicable that, under the banner of innovation, these developments were allowed' (6).
So, how has it all gone? The public sector National Probation Service is performing well, Gauke observes. But CRC contracts have faced 'challenges'. Not 'failure', no – just 'challenges'. What a wonderful word: a 'challenge' obviously isn't the fault of the person being challenged, it somehow just arrives from outside. Moreover a 'challenge' can be quite a good thing, can't it, something you 'rise' to? (Those SPADs again.). But 'difficulties were to be expected'. And that's true - they were 'expected'.
So much for the Ministerial view. Privatisation hasn't 'failed', there have just been some 'challenges' and now we can make it work (even) better by cancelling the contracts. Gauke is hugely better than any of his 4 predecessors (but goodness, what a low bar that is!). At least he is willing to state publicly the obvious truth, that our rates of incarceration are far too high and are a waste of money. But he is also a man whose reaction to shocking failure for which he personally is accountable is to dissemble. It needn't be so. A thing I much admired in Martin Narey, when he was head of the prison service, was his willingness to confront failure, own it, and use his own public dismay to fuel determination to improve. Honesty is not only possible: I suggest it also works better.
After Gauke, we get into the 'official' part of the document, where there is a little more candour. Yes, the quality of service has been 'falling short' in ' a number of areas'. But the reasons for this are 'numerous and complex'. There isn't a much specificity here about actual performance - so let me supply some. Why not start with MoJ's own metrics:
Graph 2: performance against 18 metrics
Source: Community Performance Quarterly Management Information release April 2016-March 2017 Ministry of Justice
Public sector doing what it says on the tin: private sector not doing what it says on the tin. Clear?
Or just review the wealth of testimony from auditors, inspectors, Select Committees.
This isn't a few 'challenges' here and there - it's evidence of serious, system-wide failure.
Failure to understand failure
Gauke says he wants to 'use the lessons we have learnt so far'. That of course requires one to understand the reasons for failure – as well as being willing to acknowledge failure in the first place. What were reasons?
MoJ's view, in the consultation document, appears at first to be that it was just a technical problem - the volumes projections and financial terms and assumptions of the contract (i.e. the guts of any contract!) were all wrong. Specifically:
First: most of these things were known, or should have been known, before the contracts started. The fall in community sentences started nearly a decade before these contracts began. The rise in frequency of reoffending by those getting community sentences has been going on since 2009. And it should have been obvious to MoJ that CRCs should not be judged against a 2011 baseline – 4 years before they started work. CRCs' cost structure should, of course, have been properly researched and understood as part of the procurement process. And that PBR might not be easy to apply the mechanistic way envisaged, and might not produce better results, was very apparent from the ambiguous results from MoJ's pilots in two prisons, but MoJ aborted those pilots early (8).
The second thing is that although MoJ ought to have known these things, there isn't the slightest acknowledgement of its culpability in this report. (No surprise, in a Department which in the teeth of all the evidence to the contrary, tells MPs what a strong financial grip it has (9)).
Thirdly, this isn't the first time such mistakes by MoJ have caused a contract to collapse: the collapse of the Carillion contract was also due to MoJ contracting on the basis of wrong understanding of cost structures, in that case, their own costs that they didn't understand (10).
In short, the document presents the reasons for financial failure as if they were the work of chance or external forces: it fails to acknowledge the extent to which MoJ itself created these difficulties.
But, as we read on, its transpires that there were many other serious mistakes and omissions in the contracts, which contributed to the failure of the contracts. It is astounding, for example, that MoJ wrote contracts for resettlement services that specified only one output – a plan, piece of paper – and nothing about what the plan must contain, let along actual results for real prisoners in the real world (7). Hidden away later in that report are appalling figures about the lack of care for the very prisoners who CRCs were set up to see 'through the gate'. 1 in 3 leaves prison with no where to stay, 2 in 3 of those need help with drug abuse on release, don't get it, only 1 in 6 is in a job a year after release. Never mind – there was a piece of paper filed somewhere with their name on it. How could officials think that was adequate?
Likewise, as the Chief Inspector also observed (why did it take the Inspector to notice how bad things were – did MoJ not know - or was it hoping no-one would notice?), MoJ was so hands off that it didn't think it necessary to lay down any basic requirement for the nature of probation officer/offender supervision – like, they should ever actually meet (6). Or that they should meet somewhere which gives them dignity and privacy – not a public library for example (11).
Likewise, that the contracts don't say much about the content of Rehabilitation Activity Requirement orders (RARs), introduced in 2015, which allow CRCs freedom to do much as they liked. It is conceded that as a result quality is 'patchy' and sentencers 'often' lack confidence in them (contributing to the collapse in community orders and the remorseless increase in custody).
Much of what MoJ says it will now do, in new contracts, prompts amazement that they should only think of doing it now, three years into the contracts. MoJ plans to introduce minimum standards and measures of output – you mean, in 2015 you thought it OK to write contracts without them?
Some of these appalling omissions of what seem essential contents for any service contract must be put down to Tory dogma, a magical belief, that is refuted everywhere by real world evidence, that freed of all requirements to actually do anything properly or decently, the private sector will just 'innovate' its way to outstanding social results. But officials, too, are surely to blame. I very much doubt Grayling told them not to require anything in the 'Through the gate' contracts, other than a piece of paper, for example.
And it is an extraordinary lapse, because the MoJ has not one but two full scale, worked examples of how to specify and monitor complex services for offenders, worked out over many years: the creation of standards for a mixed public/private prison service since the mid 1990s, and the creation of a national probation service in the early 2000s. All these issues about the balance between central specification and local initiative were explored then, and balances set and revised in the light of experience over many years. There is therefore no excuse for having for that balance so extravagantly wrong now.
But it's not just another example of poor contracting by MoJ (12). As the many external reports observe, there was a fundamental design mistake in the whole enterprise – the balkanisation of probation into many separate organisations, creating two parallel services in every area, the public sector NPS and private sector CRC. The problems this would create in a service which already had difficultly in working seamlessly with many other agencies, including the prison service, should have been obvious – and were obvious, to the rest of us.
It should be obvious to the MoJ also - because much of the consultation report is spent spotting ways in which balkanisation created new problems, and then trying to retro-fit some sort of national coherence to this incoherent model. Examples are the difficulty of ensuring adequate professional raining or standards, or [professional development; difficulties in partnership working with other agencies; difficulties of applying performance measures to results achieved through partnership working; difficulties with data sharing and inter-operable ITC. [MoJs promise to invest in ITC to aid data sharing will raise a hollow laugh in CRCs: this is what the Chief Inspector has to say on the subject:
“Despite significant CRC investment, implementation of new IT systems so central to most CRCs’ transformation plans is stalled, awaiting the essential connectivity with other justice systems, yet to be provided by the Ministry of Justice.” (my italics)]
Nevertheless, heroically, MoJ manages to ignore the issue of balkanisation completely, or rather, it has to ignore it, because Gauke has already decided that he will not countenance a return to a national service – because that would have to be a publicly run service. This means the report completely fails to identify the basic flaw of the design of this brave new world.
Failure to learn from failure
MoJ won't acknowledge the extent of its failure, or its own contribution to failure, and mistakenly thinks, or pretends to think, that the reasons for failure are limited to technicalities of the contracts. No surprise, then, that it shows every sign of failing to consider a different approach, one that might stand a better chance of success. Instead, they propose to repeat the failed experiment, on slightly different terms.. It is probable that new contracts which will give the CRCs more money will lead to some improvement in their performance. However the problems due to a fractured, balkanised service will remain.
What lessons should have been learned?
To which I add: this saga shows - yet again – that there is a major flaw in our Parliamentary system in that it does not permit Minsters (or civil servants) to be called account for their failures, however catastrophic,if they have managed to move on before disaster is evident. Parliament should change the rules and summon the guilty back to face the music. Starting, of course, with one Chris Grayling.
What should be done now? I don't know enough about probation to say confidently what the right model is to adopt now. But I do say that given the lessons spelled out above, it is irrational not to carry out a detailed and objective assessment of an option for returning to a single, national and mainly publicly run probation service.
I don't say that as an uncritical admirer of the pre-2015 service. In particular, it was very expensive (figures that follow are from an excellent study by the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies (14) ). In the 7 years from 2000, probation spending increased by an extraordinary 50% in real terms: over 12 year period, numbers supervised rose by much less (40%) than front line staff (65%). It is unclear that the results justified this huge jump in costs. And since then volumes of community sentences have almost halved. Pre 2015 probation also involved wasteful diseconomies of scale between lots of small Trusts, some tiny; and wasteful duplication e.g. of offender programmes for the same offenders in the same areas, as between prisons and probation services. Data I saw in the late 2000s for Unpaid Work in London suggested a hugely inefficient operation.
So I think it should be possible to develop a much cheaper public service model than the pre 2015 service, It would be fully integrated with the prison service into a single correctional service, sharing the same back office, procurement etc. functions. In due course the private sector might have another chance in a more sensible way, contracting out both prisons and probation in a significant area e.g. Kent so as to unite prison and community services under one provider, but with properly written and researched contracts and effective contract management (with real teeth and effective step in powers, as with prisons).
There are other factors favouring an integrated national service. As this saga shows, the correctional services form an integrated system and it is often necessary to move resources around as workflows change. As shown here, a fractured, partly contracted service makes this difficult. This will again be a problem when Gauke achieves his aim to abolish short prison terms, which will require a shift of resources from the prison system to the community. These changes can't be accurately forecast and it will be tedious if contracts have to be constantly reset as such changes become evident. Similarly with changes in the balance between high and low risk offenders.
Gauke wont even mention this possibility, much less look seriously at it. The terms of the 'consultation' preclude it. I wonder why not? He does not strike me as one of the Tory fanatics on privatisation: he has already cheerfully renationalised the Carillion FM service and is proposing a dual public/private track for new prisons. And he's been brave enough in questioning the Tory addiction to incarceration. Renationalisation would increase pressure on Grayling, as author of this disaster: but he has lost much support in the party through the railway cock-ups this year.
The only explanation Gauke hints at for not even thinking of renationalising is that he is intent on 'minimising the disruption that more significant reform could entail' - which will raise a hollow laugh from the thousands of staff whose careers were ended or blighted by this wholly unnecsary and destructive privatisation. So its OK to rip everything up when privatising, but not when nationalising?
Is it cost? True, an all public, union-dominated model would tend to drive up pay and pension costs way into the future. But MoJ has shown pretty brutal determination to reduce these costs in the publicly run prison service, too much so in fact. And the cost of profit margins, and of procurement, would be saved. In short, Gauke can't know what the balance of costs would be, without doing the appraisal I suggest.
I wonder if it's simply this: the Tories are saddled with being the party of endless privatisation, and can't now get off that particular horse, even if they wanted to. After all, Labour is now the party against privatisation: therefore by the law of 2 party politics, the Tories must favour it. I don't think it's even a matter of ideology: who, looking at many disasters of privatisation now crowding our newspapers, could possibly hold any more to the idiot dogma of 'public bad, private good'? Like armies in WW1, the Tories find themselves in the trenches facing the enemy opposite and have long ceased really to believe in privatisation - but 'we're here because we're here because we're here'.
At any rate, Gauke's failure to consider a national. public service is another failure, but probably not the last one, in this saga.
A final, personal note. I've been asked why I, an advocate of competition in prisons, favour renationalisation in probation. Simple: I favour intelligent privatisation, that produces public benefit: I am against stupid privatisation, that does not. Prison is intelligent privatisation. Probation is stupid privatisation.
Napoleon famously described the British as 'a nation of shopkeepers' - a people preoccupied with trade and prosperity, distrustful of great ideas and causes, common-sensical, who would always find a practical solutions to complex problems. No more. A recent YouGov poll on attitudes to Brexit reveals a new Britain.
By large majorities, people think that both Labour and the Tories are badly divided, that neither party has a clear policy on Brexit, and oppose May's plan on Brexit (even though one third of them say they aren't following that story!).
A majority actually now think voting to Brexit was a mistake (46/41%) - a bigger majority than propelled us into Brexit to start with.
That does not mean we want a soft Brexit, though. Far from it. More think May's plan is too soft (40%) than think it too soft (12%), though a third just don't know. Three times as many think 'no deal is better than a bad deal' than vice versa. Despite huge unhappiness with the Government's approach, there is a majority against having another vote on whether to accept the deal or not.
The most important Brexit issue is seen as control of immigration (28%) followed by not having to follow EU rules and not paying a sub (20% each). Tariff free trade is seen as less important (16%) and the ability of the City to continue to trade in Europe hardly figures.
A You Gov poll last year told an even more extraordinary story: that a large majority of Brexit voters are quite happy that significant economic harm to this country should be the price for Brexit. Though they think that, somehow, this won't or shouldn't happen to them or their family.
So, a nation where a majority think Brexit was a mistake - but nevertheless want the hardest possible Brexit, are happy that it should cause serious economic harm to everyone except themselves, and don't care much about trade with Europe or the future of the City, so long as we keep foreigners out. Above all, although not at all liking what is planned for them, they don't want any further say.
A nation of self-harmers, plodding towards that precipice with grim determination.
Note: I recognise that I do the Scot and Irish an injustice: they voted Remain by a large margin. It's the English and Welsh who are desperate to commit suicide.
It is, unbelievably, 5 years since the then Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling, told a shocked House of Commons that he was referring to the Serious Fraud Office the conduct of G4S and SERCO in billing government for £200m of work (on electronic motioning of offenders) which they did not do.
And we are still waiting – the best part of 2,000 days later – for a decision by the SFO on whether to prosecute.
“Justice delayed is justice denied' is an ancient maxim.
This delay is outrageous.
First, the public interest is not being served. For five years, we have not known whether or not two companies whose contracts cover a massive range of public services, and to whom billions of public money are paid each year, are to be charged with criminally defrauding the public purse. And meanwhile, they get further contracts.
Second, it is oppressive. There must be people at the centre of this who have been under investigation, under threat of prosecution, for five full years – with all the consequences of that in terms of stress, difficulty in getting employment and so on. Not just them, but their families.
Third, it threatens to defeat the interests of justice. At some point, delay of many years must affect the chances of a successful prosecution, if such is the outcome – memories fade of key events and discussions, and at this rate, witnesses may well die of old age before the SFO wakes from its slumbers.
The delay is unfathomable. The case lacks every dimension of complexity one can think of – multiple victims (only one); multiple jurisdictions (only |England and Wales); multiple contracts (two); intricate company structures (two); miscreants on the run (none known). In fact, the one victim, the Ministry of Justice, stated publicly that it had no information to show dishonesty on the part of either company.
So how can it possibly take 5 years, not to complete a trial, not even to start a trial , but to merely decide whether or not to hold a trial?
Perhaps savage cuts in the SFOs budget are to blame? Hardly: its Resource DEL last year was slightly above that for 2010-11.
It seems simply that the SFO doesn't think 5 years is a long time. [20/7: just received a FoI response which says, incredibly, that nearly one third of current SFO inquiries have been on the go more than five years. What do they do there?]
SERCO and G4S were the scandal. Now, the scandal is the SFO.
Anyone hoping that the Justice Committee's questioning of Rory Stewart, prisons minister, and MoJ officials on 26 June would give a clearer picture of the Department's finances was emphatically disappointed (1). The event illustrated the limitations of the Commons Committee system, in which each of a dozen or so MPs is in turn given the chance to ask 'their' list of questions. When the answer is unclear or evasive, the questioning often moves on without the issue being resolved. Particular so, when complex financial matters are discussed (2). The effect is like watching a confused battle at night, where the occasional flash briefly illuminates something - but you are not quite sure what – or how it connects to the rest of the battlefield.
In my analysis of 14 May, I described MoJ's finances as out of control, bursting the settlement agreed in SR 2015 in many directions simultaneously, by, I estimated, as much as a billion a year.
Here's what we learned from this hearing - or didn't [my comments in italics]:
Questions posed by the Committee which the MoJ could not or did not answer:
Confusion still reigns. However there is nothing here to suggest that my analysis of 14 May wasn't broadly right.
If I were advising the Committee. I'd say: don't take more oral evidence until MoJ have supplied a table showing:
a) the provision agreed in SR 15 and the main assumptions used, including prison population;
b) revised provision showing what increases agreed since the SR were for, including changed assumptions, and how funded;
c) what MoJ now thinks it needs next year and to, say, 22-23, separating capital and revenue, and the population assumptions it is using;
d) the revised building and closure programme, showing when new prisons will start and when become operational, how much capacity they will provide, and when existing prisons will close, the capacity lost through closure
e) to match d), all costs of the programme including building, fitting out and staffing and opening new prisons, estimated capital receipts from closure, transitional revenue costs of closure e.g. redundancy and of opening e.g. training, showing extent of double running (old capacity still operating while new is still not fully operational).
When the Committee has that, it could have a useful further oral examination. Trouble is, I doubt MoJ know half these things.
A final curiosity. The CFO told the Committee not once, but three times, that MoJ has a 'very strong system of financial management'. Now, believe it or not, I am very sympathetic to the position finance officials in MoJ and elsewhere in Government find themselves in. It is a far more challenging job than the one I had as FD of the HMPS around 2000, and to know that you are spending your working life systematically degrading vital public services, while publicly supporting minsters' pretence that funding is adequate to maintain services, must be hellish.
Still, when one considers that on their own admission, the last SR was disastrously mishandled, that on their own admission, maintenance contracts collapsed because MoJ didn't understand its own costs, resulting in additional spending, that MoJ as been forced to partially reverse deeply damaging cuts in prison staffing and hence exceed again the SR 2015 settlement, that probation contracts have become sustainable because MoJ didn't understand volume risk and this too may exceed the settlement provision, that MoJ's massive building programme has utterly failed, that MoJ cocked up increases in fees , that the court modernisation programme is costing more than budgeted but say the NAO may realise fewer savings than planned, that MoJ is so far adrift financially that its PUSS has had to tell Parliament he cant yet set a proper budget for the current year – when you consider all those things, then if I were the CFO, I would not go around telling Commons Committees that the MoJ has 'very strong financial management systems'.
(2) I made the same point in my book, regarding the PAC's failure to spot the MoJ's role in the SERCO/G$S tagging scandal (page 74)
Last week the Justice Committee took evidence about the state of prisons, and plans for prisons, from the prisons minister, Rory Stewart, and a number of his officials - Mike Driver, CFO of the MoJ and Justin Russell, head of ORC (Offender Reform and Commissioning).
Very visibly and curiously absent was one person – the actual head of the Prison Service, Mike Spurr. He was referred to once or twice but no-one explained why he wasn't there, as he and all his predecessors have been on such occasions in the past. So none of the people present works, or ever has worked, in a prison, or managed prisons: yet the sessions was about the work of prisons and what is happening in them.
Though - another oddity – it is increasingly difficult to distinguish Stewart's role from Spurr's: Stewart often talks as though he is the one running prisons, with absolutely no sense of the difference in role between being minister and actually managing the Service (odd reversal of Michael Howard's insistence that he was only responsible for 'policy', never 'operations'). Which makes plausible the rumour that Stewart, bizarrely, is so utterly smitten with prisons that he wants to move over to head the Service, believing that he is the man to save it.
I think I have seen this movie before. Spurr is being held locked in a room in a high tower within Queen Anne's Gate, being interrogated night and day until he signs the confession that he personally sabotaged the Spending Review settlement by moving all the decimal points around at random (which would explain a lot, come to think of it). Stewart keeps trying on his new uniform as Director General of HMPPS in front of a large mirror and ordering extra gold trim here and there, occasionally snarling at his toadying ORCs, 'Hasn't he signed yet?'. Meanwhile Spurr's loyal staff are arrested one by one or re-posted to Dartmoor or loaned to the Bulgarian prison service. But one loyal secretary has found out where Spurr is being held and is as this moment inching along the window ledge, high above Petty France, towards Spur's cell, a mobile phone clenched in her teeth, the phone number of the Clerk of the Justice Committee already on rapid dial...
TO BE CONTINUED
As a respite from prisons and the MoJ - today, railways and the DT.
My Daily Mail journalist brother Ben and I don't always see eye to eye politically, but in this recent article from the Rail Magazine, he reaches precisely the conclusion I have about prisons - that the 'public v private' slanging match is misconceived, since it is so evident that railways (like prisons) can be run equally well, and equally badly, by either sector.
One might think that the debate would be about just where and in what circumstances it makes best sense to use the two sectors, and how best to use them, and how best to get them working together. Dream on! All we ever hear - from Left, from Right, from politicians, from journalists, is 'Two legs good, four legs bad'. Or, of course, the reverse. So often in politics, it seems that people prefer to chant than to think.
The system isn’t perfect, but rail is enjoying a renaissance
Ben Le Vay
A friend has suggested travelling from Oxford to Vladivostok by train. Naturally, I agreed straightaway, but added: “Do you know the one bit across all those nations, railway systems and two continents that you can’t do by a modern, electrified railway?” Receiving the answer ‘no’, I said: “Oxford to Didcot!”
Despite the billions of pounds we have spent on the Great Western electrification - part of the very welcome railway renaissance in this country - there is no plan to finish this job. So, can this local problem begin to tell us what is shamefully shambolic about our history of national railway decision-making?
In this particular case, diesel trains will be required to do the last few miles, which flies in the face of a Government minister recently vowing to get rid of polluting diesels altogether (RAIL 847).
The problem has been partly solved by hybrid trains, which start off as powerful electric expresses from Paddington, but then somewhere en route such as Reading a diesel engine under the floor starts rumbling like a Ford Transit. Yes, these trains are nice and new, but they are neither as spacious nor as comfortable (nor even as fast under diesel power) as the original 42-year-old High Speed Trains they are replacing.
Just think about the environmental logic. You make the new electric trains as light and quiet and clean as possible… then add six-tonne diesel engines plus fuel tanks under the floor for the bits where you can’t be bothered to finish the job. I realise they will be brilliant for running into areas never likely to be electrified, such as the Cotswolds beyond Oxford, but the main line trains should not be lugging all this kit back and forth.
I also realise that electrifying the last few miles to Oxford might be better done with a total upgrade of the junction and route (I hope this explains the pause in construction), but surely this should have been anticipated. As should a lot of things, frankly. Network Rail seemed surprised that its super-duper engineering train (for installing electrification masts more quickly) cut through the signalling cables that NR itself had buried in the trackside ballast only a few years ago to defeat the cable thieves (with the result the holes are now having to be dug by hand, while the multimillion-pound electrification train idles alongside).
I welcome the new longer electric suburban trains from places such as Maidenhead, but Network Rail gives the impression of being slightly surprised that longer trains mean longer platforms (in as much as they weren’t ready on time), and that more people need more car park spaces (ditto). It is now scratching around for what it calls ‘stabling’ - overnight sidings with room for all the new longer trains, which don’t fit in. “The clue is in the word ‘longer’,” said my Oxford chum drily.
To be fair to the railway, if the politicians called a halt to the overspending and delayed electrification, with the result that many branch lines in places such as the Thames Valley and around Cardiff do not get electrified after all, suddenly you have to keep the diesel fleet in their sidings, and thus have nowhere to keep all the shiny new electric trains. It’s a messy and wasteful compromise.
The London end of the Greta Western electrificarion scheme has gone ahead pretty well and is a part of the new Crossrail service that starts next year. designed to whisk people from Maidenhead to Shenfield (why, one might ask), getting far more people across central London without to change to the overburdened Tube (that's really why). Taking full sized trains, this new route could have offered Norwich-Ipswich-Colchester expresses straight through London to Bath-Bristol or Cardiff, but sadly that seems unlikely. It is to get commuters into London more smoothly.
And this led me to a staggering realisation about all our current grand railway schemes. They have all been done before, far cheaper in real terms, and then scandalously scrapped.
Crossrail: A brilliant idea of letting trains running into Paddington from the west continue under London to the City (including Farrngdon) in one seamless move.
Done before: In 1866, the ‘Widened Lines’ allowed trains coming into Paddington, and St Pancras and King’s Cross, to continue to Moorgate and (erm) Farringdon. Services closed gradually after the Second World War, but Thameslink uses part of it.
East West Railway:A brilliant scheme to link Oxford and Cambridge by a new direct route via Milton Keynes and Bedford, and also offering useful connections between many main lines.
Done before: Look out west just north of Oxford station, and you will see a rusting swing bridge over a canal and howl in frustration. For this shows it was all done long before, in 1851, with this bridge to reach its own station (Oxford Rewley Road).
Or look above you as you speed up the West Coast Main Line at Bletchley, and you will see a splendid concrete flyover completed in 1960 by British Railways, to let the Oxford-Cambridge ‘Varsity Line’’ run more smoothly and to have better freight connections, together with brand new electric signalling - only for it all to be closed and odd bits of the line scrapped and built over.
Northern Powerhouse: A new, speedier electrified trans-Pennine route is needed to better connect Manchester with Yorkshire. The Government promised this, calling it HS3, then back-pedalled to merely electrifying the existing (rather constricted) routes. Then it back-pedalled harder, possibly abandoning even that idea.
Done before: A new electrified route was opened in 1953 by the then newly nationalised British Railways to link Manchester and Sheffield via smart new concrete tunnels at Woodhead. The through route was closed in 1970 and the empty tunnels are now used for electric cables.
HS2: This is a promised whole new line between London, the Midlands and the North, costing somewhere probably double the estimated £28 billion. They have somehow managed to spend a billion pounds already without building an inch of track!
Although it will end at Euston within a few hundred yards of the HS1 route to the Continent, astonishingly there will be no connection, so European-size (larger) night freight and day passenger trains will be unable to continue up HS2.
Meanwhile, although it will pass within a few miles of Heathrow, it won’t go there either. It will stop instead at a place called Old Oak Common in west London. Ever needed to go there? Nope, me neither, but it will link to Crossrail - the new HS2 station there will obliterate some of the sidings that Crossrail needs.
Done before: The Great Central Railway was the last great main line built within England. Edwardian visionary Sir Edward Watkin laid it out for high-speed running and to the European loading gauge (the space under bridges and tunnels), so that larger European trains could fit through. He also planned to build a Channel Tunnel and connect it up properly.
The line wasn’t finished until the beginning of the 20th century, which is why its London terminus (Marylebone) is the only one with art nouveau flourishes in its decor.requirements, and so on - are made by civil servants and ministers, not private companies.
The truth is more complex than press, politicians, public or pundits want it to be. Both nationalised and privatised railways can be brilliant and well-funded… or bungling, costly failures.
Today’s picture is mixed, but basically improving things. Many sensible bottleneck-busting schemes such as flyovers and connecting curves are going ahead around the country without much fanfare, and in recent years more people have travelled more safely at higher average speeds than ever before. In other words, a success - a nationalised company putting right earlier nationalised blunders, but getting private investors to pay for much of it (in the form of new trains, and so on).
But just as out-and-out capitalist privatisation (in the form of Railtrack) was a disaster, so complete renationalisation (including train operators and owners) as a monolithic state corporation would be, too.
If you lived through half a century of BR’s nationalised gigantic bungling, failure, closures, retreat, shabbiness, frequent strikes and terrible accidents, and now realise that so much that was undone is having to be expensively redone, why would you be in any rush to board that particular train once again?
Some things are still going wrong - I would like to see the brilliant open access competition of the East Coast route adopted elsewhere (without the far-fetched franchise bids that cause that profitable route to keep collapsing), and please finish electrification to Oxford - but much, much more is going right.
Investment is at a level only our Victorian forebears matched. The jobs being done, stations such as St Pancras and King’s Cross being wonderfully revamped, and the trains being built today (in three new factories) would not have made the wildest wishlist of the most devout 1980s rail fan.
So, as our American chums put it: if it ain’t bust, don’t fix it. Meanwhile, I’m off to Vladivostok… via Didcot. R
■ Benedict le Vay is a Fleet Street journalist, and author of Britain From the Rails: A Window Gazer’s Guide and When Train Meets Volcano.
I was formerly Finance Director of the Prison Service and then Director of the National Offender Management Service responsible for competition. I also worked in the NHS and an IT company. I later worked for two outsourcing companies.
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