The removal of Michael Spurr as head of HM Prison and Probation Service today gives one to think about what it means nowadays to head up any of our public services.
I worked with Michael when I was FD of the Prison Service, though not closely – he is a deal younger than me and was then I think still an Area Manager. I do not know him personally at all well. Yet directly, and indirectly through those who have been closer to him, I know him to be an outstanding manager, of a kind that the great British public, our media, our politicians whether Left or Right, neither understand, nor are properly grateful for. (The one exception, curiously, was Jack Straw who, whatever his other faults, did know when he was well served, and did not interpose the bodies of his servants between himself and enemy fire.)
Spurr is a man of great integrity, utterly dedicated to his chosen profession and with a deep moral and, I suspect, specifically Christian understanding of its importance – an insider told me that while he shrugged off the machinations of his own MoJ colleagues against him, the one time they saw him really low was after the grisly suicide of a young prisoner. He is utterly without what used to be called 'side' - which in a world of spite, panic and malice (good name for a firm of PR consultants?) could make him seem naive, and a ready victim for less ethically burdened civil servants and politicians.
His removal – the exact term I believe, for Spurr has rejected the kind invitation to shoot himself from the Permanent Secretary, Richard Heaton, the man at the top for the MoJ, who himself seems to carry personal accountability for nothing whatsoever, despite having presided for years over the utter degradation of our entire system of justice in this country (sometime, I must write about Permanent Secretaries, those parasitic growths on the body politic – do you know, in the past 70 years, not one in any area of Government has ever been sacked, while in the past 25, we have seen two heads of the Prison Service dismissed, the Worshipful Guild of Permanent Secretaries looking after its own, always), and instead to has chosen to await either redeployment or a real sacking, much as his predecessor Derek Lewis famously declined to step down when invited to do so in 1994 – his removal, I was saying, is desperately unfair. For once, Lord Falconer has it right:
“Michael Spurr is a terrific impressive decent public servant who has given his working life to prison and probation, and has been dealt as shitty a hand by the government as it is possible to deal “.
It was to, be sure, not Spurr's brilliant idea to cut staffing by a quarter while allowing prisoner numbers to increase, nor his idea to tear the probation service to shreds and half privatise it in a tearing hurry, on no evidence at all and with no escape route should the change prove disastrous, as it has. The people who deserve the blame for destroying these services are: Grayling, Gove, Truss, Gauke and Stewart. (I leave out Lidington because he was only there for 15 minutes). (A correspondent says I am too severe on Stewart, who he says has good intentions: but when people are dying and lives are being destroyed because of irresponsible cuts and botched privatisation, I am not in the least impressed by intentions, if fine words are not backed by more money, more staff, reduced demand for prison places and re-nationalisation. Not to mention an apology, damn them!)
I am sure that Spurr warned Minsters very explicitly of the risks they were running, and serialisation of his advice and minsters responses would make a good read: would it not, Messrs Grayling and Co (not to mention the strikingly pointless Heaton)? So I foresee his being paid rather a lot of depart quietly, backed naturally by a gagging clause to avoid any unpleasantness for his masters.
And yet. When Spurr began in post, both services were in as good a shape as anyone could recall in living memory; today both are in scandalous disrepair. Can the great British public, with its insatiable demand for heads of poles, really be blamed for assuming that the leader of the services must have some part in their dismal decline? After all - it all happened on his watch (one of his mistakes was to stay too long - and his luck eventually did run out).
And Spurr's case does illustrate the dilemma of any decent, able public servant in an era of austerity. What is one to do, after all, when the Minister tells you that come what may, budgets must be cut by 25%? You protest, you warn, you argue, you are overruled. Then what? You can resign, of course. Some might blame Spurr for not doing so then, and think him weak and venal for not choosing that way out. But if this is what you have given your life to this work, if you believe that if you go, much worse will follow, that there isn't yet anyone remotely ready to succeed you, that you alone have the capacity to make this risky change happen in the least damaging way, that your colleagues are desperately looking to you to see them through unparalleled dangers, then quitting might well seem unthinkable cowardice.
But if you stay, then what? The terrible truth is that you yourself must become the instrument of the policies you so opposed. You must devise the detailed plan to make it all happen, and you must persuade colleagues, and unions, that it will work, and that they must cooperate with it. And that is what Spurr did. And of course, his enormous skill in management and his reputation and standing amongst prison governors, and prison pressure groups, made it easier to do. It was Spurr who persuaded colleagues and unions that the service could run safely with much lower staffing levels and much lower starting pay, and that yes, the fragmentation and selling off of probation really could be done, and to an absurd timetable. And the fact is that he did these things superbly well – the Service when I was there could never have managed doing so many radical changes, so quickly, so well. It was a tour de force of management, though whether it was the right change is, as I said at the time, another matter entirely.
For that is what leadership means. You cannot stand there and say, Minsters demand that you do this, I advised against and frankly wash my hands of it, but you must go ahead nevertheless. That would be a truly reprehensible abdication – taking the money but not dong the job. As though a WW1 General were to say to his captains, walking into German machine guns under massive bombardment is obviously suicidal, you'll all be killed - but off you go! You have to say, this time we've got ever so many more big guns, we've finally timed the bombardment right, this time we'll smash their defences first, you'll punch right through them and might end the War, go to it! And if you have integrity, you can only say it if you to some extent believe it.
So I conclude, with the greatest reluctance – because I have some measure of the moral nature of this man – that someone in Spurr's position cannot, in fact, avoid contamination by the policies he was obliged to implement. And I would be surprised is that is not one of the burdens he now feels most acutely. For men like that do not need Daily Mail attack dogs to remind them of their failings: their own conscience stands fiercest in judgement.
And so I think it must be for anyone at the top of public services systemically degraded by austerity – chief executives of hospitals faced with impossible 'efficiency' targets, police chiefs with too few officers to attend to 999 calls, army chiefs who know equipment is steadily falling below the standards of a modern army, school heads forced to rely more and more on untrained 'assistants'. And of course - this is sadly not yet understood – it applies equally to leaders in outsourced services. Directors of SERCO, G4S or Sodexo prisons who also have to deal with rising numbers of drug intoxicated prisoners with too few staff on too little pay and Minsters and media in scapegoating mode. And one wonders, why anyone of real capacity and worth would wish to to lead our public services in such a climate? Where to implement austerity means to be personally implicated in it. And then to be blamed for the consequences.
One can imagine this done with integrity. That is to say, neither the Tory refusal to acknowledge that deep cuts mean poor services, nor the Labour pretence that everything can be made affordable by pushing the printing presses into overdrive and massively increasing the tax take from the private sector- just as we tilt into Brexit-inspired recession. Imagine, instead, a reasoned, just assessment that such and such are the priority groups, and this standard is the best that we can with limited means realistically hope to do for them, more we cannot, however much we want to, and awful though it may be to accept that. In the prison service, it would take a different form – acceptance of a reduction in crazy levels of incareration, knowing that only with fewer prisoners can prisons be run decently. In such a world, we could be demanding but fair to our public service leaders.
The reason we don't live in such a world is not, ultimately, the politicians or the journalists – it is ourselves. The great British public believes it is entitled to excellent services without paying for them. Until recently, a clear majority opposed any increase in their taxes to save the NHS; one in 3 of us doesn't pay anything into a pension, though we know that life on the state pension is a miserable business; from the Right there is hysterical anger that someone lucky enough to own their home should be asked to contribute some of its value to their care in old age (better it seems that people who don't own their homes, or anything at all, should be forced to pay for them!); someone will bail us out, we assume and if not, watch out. Likewise we want to lock up more and more offenders, but not to pay the bill. The British really like their sour cocktail of unrealistic entitlement, vicious resentment when it is not met, and gloating dispatch of the chosen scapegoats.
Which is where Spurr comes in.
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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