Commenting on a huge development plan which will further erode the very things that make people want to live and work in Oxford – Oxford is white-hot economically and as a result, feels like a city under siege by Big Money (1) - I have had to wade through a number of lengthy planning documents.
What strikes me is the peculiar language and style of these documents (same of course can be said of official documents which I used to write myself). Orwell taught us that language IS thought, and that deliberate distortions in language are deliberate efforts to distort, or limit, thinking.
Planners delight in using words and phrases that no ordinary person ever does, and which in fact often signal the exact reverse of what the authors hope they will convey.
'vibrant' = 'overcrowded, noisy; possibly smelly, too'
'high class' = ' as cheap as we think we can get away with'
'world class' = 'OK, we'll slap a fancy facade on it'
'iconic' = 'looks like Croydon'
'heritage' = 'infuriating, but we aren't allowed to demolish this'
'exciting' = 'lots of money to be made'
'visionary' = 'lots and lots and LOTS of money to be made'
'amenity' = 'little trees and benches to placate locals
'sustainability' = 'put usual 'green' stuff in here'
and of course
'consultation' = 'ask what they want, then do what we want'
Some of the language is just pseudo-technical and grandiose:
'gateway' = main road
'hub' = junction or interchange
'multi-model interchange opportunity' = 'bus and rail station'
'public realm' = 'public spaces'
'signage' = 'signs'
Some still await translation:
Here's my own offering: 'town planner': 'someone who knows everything about a city - except the people who live in it'.
Equally in Plan Speak, you cannot talk about the things that actually matter to people - the intangible atmosphere or feeling or look of a place. There is no language for it. I've seen so many instances (Oxford being much developed, but peopled by articulate residents) where communities are told that such things are simply not debatable, because they don't fit any category of officially recognised planning talk. Only footfall, through-flows, optimising value, and all the other crap that clog up the minds (and hearts) of planning committees everywhere.
Thus, when the Council official we went to see set all that aside, and simply asked us what we valued about our neighbourhood (all credit to her!), all sorts of things came out which, on one view, are trivia, on another, are the stuff of peoples' lives: there are lots of different birds in our gardens, because next to the countryside and river; you can let your children play in the street (it's a cul de sac) and as result, they get to know each other and as a result, their parents get to know each other; because people are often in the street, they talk to each other; old people feel safe; lonely and vulnerable people are hailed and talked to; a stranger who is behaving oddly is easily challenged, or helped; looking outside to the west, the countryside is completely dark at night; its so quiet at night, you can hear the cows lowing.
The effect of these comments was like a shaft of sunlight breaking into a room long shuttered.
To challenge power is to challenge the language of power.
(1) Brexit may be solving this problem as EU funding for research is cut and – a number of foreigners have said this to me – they no longer feel welcome here. I feel so ashamed, and angry to hear that.
Another month, another damning report on procurement in the Ministry of Justice.
In June, we had the joint Prison/Probation Inspectorate report on contracts for 'Through the gate' services, to prepare short term prisoners for release, which concluded that
“if [these] services were removed tomorrow....the impact on the resettlement of prisoners would be negligible” (1).
In July, we had the National Audit Office report (2) on the interminable saga of procurement of electronic monitoring of offenders: now on the third attempt, 5 years late and counting, millions wasted on nugatory work, savings missed, unrealistic requirements, unrealistic timescales, wrong contracting model, botched programme management, inadequate staffing, contracts unclear, oppressive treatment of contractors – whatever could go wrong, did go wrong. And much of which was foreseen by observers at the time.
A steady stream of inspection reports have been critical of the probation services delivered under contract by Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs) (Suffolk -'nowhere near good enough', Northamptonshire - 'simply not good enough' , Gwent – 'a troubling picture at the CRC'). Last month the MoJ slipped out a statement admitting that the contracts were failing and giving the CRCs more money, though they won't say how much – 'commercially confidential', effortlessly trumping the citizen's right to know what is done with his money (3). These are the contracts where extra money was supposed to be payment by results – turns out they get extra anyway, success or failure. 'Risk transfer', certainly - just not in the right direction.
Similarly with the MoJ's FM contracts with Carillion for maintaining prisons. This from the Independent Monitoring Board at Pentonville Prison the other day:
“Aspects of the physical environment are squalid, with blocked toilets, leaking sewage and broken facilities meaning prisoners regularly go without showers, clean clothes and hot food. The prison struggles to ensure the basics of decency largely due to the outsourced provider responsible for maintenance: Carillion........The contract is working neither for Pentonville nor the taxpayer” (4)
The MoJ seem intent on rivalling MoD as the Department whose every procurement results in the familiar cycle of damning report, action plan, 'those responsible have moved on' (so sadly, can't be held to account) while – of course! - 'we are determined to learn the lessons'.
Explaining endemic failure
It is worth asking why MoJ has accumulated such a history of failure, for two reasons. First, the MoJ delivers a huge amount of its services through contracts – MoJ's spend through contracts is now not very far short of what it spends on its directly managed service. So if MoJ procurement is failing, then the Department is failing – and that raise questions about the ability of Government to manage outsourcing on an ever bigger scale, indeed, quite why outsourcing is such a brilliant idea.
But, second, it didn't used to be this way. Look back 10 years: contracts for prisons, and escorts, which had certainly had their share of teething problems in the 1990s, had settled in, and were running well. In 2006, the NAO produced a very positive report on the electronic monitoring contracts, the ones which are now so problematic (5). So what happened after 2007 (coincidentally or not, the point when these services moved from the Home Office to MoJ)?
1) the MoJ's history of failure goes back many years
It is tempting to think that it's all down to 'cuts', and Grayling's hasty and ill-advised schemes. But the appalling state of procurement in MoJ was evident well before any of that. In 2013, the then Justice Secretary revealed that his officials had over some years paid SERCO and G4S £200m for work they had not done. He referred the 2 companies to the Serious Fraud Office, and they are – still! – under investigation. The companies had to repay the money, lost contracts, lost their CEOs and lost huge share value. There has been no investigation however of why MoJ officials paid £200m of bills without checking them; nor what exactly the companies told MoJ officials of what they were doing, around 2010; nor of changes MoJ made to these contracts that made overcharging easier and, perhaps, even lawful; nor of the Internal Audit report around 2010 that flagged up this weakness, and which was also ignored.
What we did get was an audit of MoJ's big service contracts: and it was devastating (6). 5 out of 7 major operational contracts – on which law and order services in this country depend – were flagged as 'red', meaning weakness in contract management giving rise to significant risk of operational failure , or material errors in charging. Overall, the verdict was 'long standing and significant weakness in contract management' in MoJ. Meanwhile the Public Accounts Committee found evidence of failure to recruit experienced staff, botched reorganisation, failure of operational and commercial staff to work together and a culture in which accountability and responsibility were lacking (7). 'Nul points', in other words.
It goes without saying that the Permanent Secretaries who presided over this shambles sailed on into their well pensioned retirements without a scratch.
2) Grayling knew all that - yet insisted it did much more, much faster
It was on this weak, badly performing procurement organisation that Grayling chose to impose the burden of one of the most rapid, risky, complicated, ill-thought out and evidence-free procurements ever attempted in Government, the part privatisation and wholesale re-organisation of probation services. Here's what I wrote two years ago:
“The TR changes lack compelling rationale or evidence, are uncosted, require extremely rapid implementation of new, highly complex organisational and relational models for all participants simultaneously, use payment mechanisms that are entirely untested and carry major risks of unforeseen consequences, rely on new and untested suppliers, require high levels of competence in contracting and contract management that the MoJ has recently been shown to lack, are being implemented at break neck speed for no reason, and there seems to be no recovery plan if goes badly wrong .
It is like watching people doing their best to organise the perfect train crash.”(8)
There is not the slightest reason to think the new arrangements have brought any benefit; plenty to think they came at great cost.
3) MoJ officials adopted a bizarre and unworkable contracting model
However it would be very unfair to place all the blame on Grayling. Because it was at this point that there was a strange development in MoJ procurement which, I believe, is entirely down to officials – possibly to just one official (8A). This was the replacement of traditional 'vertical integration' of complex service contracts – so that all the work to provide a given service done in one area is contracted to a single contractor – by 'horizontal integration', by which the service is divided into different components, and all work on each element in contracted to one contractor across a wider area – thus, in one area, you have many contractors supposedly working together to deliver the service.
This was done in prisons (so that a governor had different contractors providing FM services, resettlement services, education and healthcare services in his prison, on which he must rely, but for which he held none of the contracts himself); in probation (so that in every area you have the rump of the public service providing services for high risk offenders, the contractors providing the same services for other offenders, and the public service handling the interface between all offenders and the courts); and electronic monitoring (where hardware, software, telecoms and service preparation were all contracted out separately).
This strategy was uniformly disastrous, and in fact has been condemned by Government itself (9). Not hard to see why: it means that it is next to impossible to pin down service failure, and that a great deal of energy is wasted by companies and by Government trying to integrate the service locally, usually not very well. This has been a major cause of under-performance, or delays in procurement, or both.
4) MoJ has repeatedly failed to ensure adequate competition
So why on earth did MoJ adopt it as their contracting model? The explanation suggested to me is that they wanted to reduce reliance on the big outsourcers at the heart of the tagging scandal in 2013 – SERCO and G4S. But the way to do that was, obviously, to bring in new contractors – to develop the market (and as Government is the only customer, it is wonderfully placed to do that). Yet that is precisely what MoJ has not done. On tagging, for example, the MoJ tried to use an SME, Buddi, but ended up by imposing such unreasonable terms that Buddi withdrew, publicly scorning MoJ's incompetence. Similarly it failed with another SME, Steatite. It then ended up awarding the outstanding hardware contract to – G4S, who are still under investigation for massive fraud on that very contract!
Similarly with prisons, where MoJ foolishly allowed the market to consolidate to just 3 contractors, in 2008. They then lured contractor after contractor to enter the market – GEO, Reliance and MITIE amongst them – only to continue to award every contract to the existing big 3 (10).
It is a brainless and utterly self defeating thing thing to do, because every potential contractor sees them doing it, and swears never to get involved. It makes MoJ ever more dependent on the same big contractors, hence their unhealthy dependency on G4S (11).
5) MoJ is still getting even the basics wrong
So much for MoJ's over-complicated, unworkable model for contracting. But there is evidence that even the basics of more workaday contracting are still beyond MoJ. How is one to explain, for example, the fact that the contracts for 'through the gate' services in prisons, designed to prepare prisoners for successful re-entry to the community, don't actually require the contactor to do anything to help the prisoner – the single output required is a piece of paper, a resettlement plan. That is all the CRC need do to get paid. And so little wonder the inspectors
“saw blank plans, or actions in plans which were marked as ‘completed’ when actually no work had been done. This was apparently so that the CRC minimised the chances of being in breach of the contract ...The services we saw could not reasonably be expected to impact on levels of re offending.” (1)
Or this, from the recent report on the continuing fiasco of the tagging procurement:
“internal and external reviews noted a lack of accountability to the senior responsible owner (SRO) and unhelpful disunity between operational, technical, commercial and programme staff."(2)
These are exactly the same weaknesses to which the audit of contracts in 2013 drew attention. 4 years on, nothing has changed. MoJ is very much busy not 'learning the lessons'.
Conclusion – what is to be done?
So the MoJ's weak and deficient procurement function goes back to 2010, at least; still persists; has been exacerbated by both Grayling's impetuousity and officials' enthusiasm for a flawed contractual model; and on the fundamentals, nothing has changed.
One might think the obvious conclusion from this long history of failure is that MoJ should be cautious in taking on new procurement challenges - particularly anything at all novel or risky or complicated.
Quite the opposite. .MoJ has just adopted a new operating model for prisons and probation based on quasi-contracts of the most bizarre kind, involving an involuted structure that is the stuff of nightmares. Operational line management still exists, as now, reporting to one senior civil servant at the top of the MoJ; but at the same time, another senior civil servant within MoJ will 'commission' services from each prison, decide their budget and their service spec, write a pretend contract and audit their performance.
He will also take ITC, estate and other infrastructure services away from the operational line management - a massive re-centralisation, and abandonment of the Agency concept introduced 25 years ago (12). And that includes some service contracts – thus ensuring even more distance between procurement staff and operational staff. (Indeed it appears this may include contracts for prisons and escorting – the only major MoJ contracts not bedevilled by procurement failures. Can it really be coincidence that they were the contracts were developed by the Home Office prior to the move to MoJ in 2007?).
And, icing on the cake, the guy who is playing at shops in this bizarre way, has no experience of prisons, indeed no significant experience of management at all. An arrangement introduced without the slightest reasoning or justification, without any analysis - such that even now, when it has been in place for months, MoJ are unable to explain how it works, how it can possibly work. Thus the mandarinate triumphant, seizing back control from the uncouth mechanics of the prison service – at just the point where the whole system is dissolving in chaos, and needs strong, clear management structures. It really is a spectacular mess, and entirely self- inflicted.
A modest proposal
In this crisis, I offer a modest proposal. It is not at all novel. It is the same model, actually, as Whitehall applies to all failing schools and hospitals. It is this. MoJ is, plainly not fit for purpose: its direct operations are a shambles, and its contracts are a shambles. It is a failing, or rather failed, Department. It should be taken over by another Government - the Scottish Government. The Scottish correctional services have their difficulties, sure - but are not disintegrating in violent chaos, do not reorganise every 2 or 3 years, run traditional line management, and the Scots not obsessed with bizarre contractual and privatisation models. They are ideally placed to restire order and sanity to MoJ services. Meanwhile an intensive re-education campaign would thoroughly overhaul MoJ, recruit new personnel at key levels, and change the culture.
Then, if all went well, after 5 or 10 years, we could experiment with some limited measure of devolution to Whitehall.
(1) “An Inspection of Through the Gate Resettlement Services for Prisoners Serving 12 Months or More”. A joint inspection by HM Inspectorate of Probation and HM Inspectorate of Prisons. June 2017
(2) NAO 'The new generation electronic monitoring programme' HC 242. July 2017
(3) Hansard, Written Statement, 19 July 2017
(4) The Guardian, 28 July 2017, “Pentonville prison report attacks 'squalid, inhumane' conditions”
(5) NAO, 'The electronic monitoring of adult offenders1 February' 2006 HC 800
(6) MoJ 'Contract management review' 2013
7) The Oral Evidence to the PAC by the Permanent Secretary was especially revealing. More so than she intended it is safe to assume: (http://data.parliament.uk/writtenevidence/committeeevidence.svc/evidencedocument/public-accounts-committee/transforming-government-contract-management/oral/12386.pdf
(8) From my book, 'Competition for prisons: public or private?' Policy Press, 2015
(8A) An intriguing reference in the NAO report supports this.
(9) “In February 2015, the Government Digital Service stated that this tower model was “not condoned and not in line with government policy”. This is because of the difficulty in transferring responsibility to a contracted integrator and the risk of buying incompatible parts of systems and services that are then hard to integrate “ NAO report, see Note 2.
(10) The original strategy for market development – the only one, actually, since there has never been another - was set by Derek Lewis in 1992. He aimed at 4 suppliers, as the bare minimum needed for effective competition. This was achieved quite quickly, in 1997. But in 2008, merger lead to reduction to 3 suppliers. MoJ have since invited many other companies to bid, but always awarded contracts to the same big 3. They have now pretty well exhausted the pool of potential new suppliers.
(11) See http://www.julianlevay.com/articles/an-unhealthy-relationship
(12) This model is explored in my evidence to the Justice Select Committee:
It is utterly amazing that the White Paper offered not the slightest case for making such a fundamental change - yet another example of the 'dumbing down' of policy making in the Civil Service.
Faced with a coruscating indictment of Tory mis-management of the prison system today from Andrea Albutt of the Prison Governors Association, this was the response from Bob Neill, chair of the influential Commons Justice Committee:
Conservative MP and chair of the Commons justice select committee, Bob Neill, told Today he did not share Albutt’s concerns over the government’s changes, saying the split between policy and operations happened successfully across other areas of the public sector.#
The bigger problem, Neill said, was a serious disconnection and growing lack of confidence between “the top brass, if you like, of the Prison Service and the operational people on the ground”.
Meanwhile the silence from Lidington is deafening*.
Looks to me that the Tories are measuring Michael Spurr, head of the service, for the drop, should prison riots break out this summer. Exactly what Michael Howard did when he found himself in the firing line on prisons - insert your servants between you and the bullets. Worked for him!**
# Odd, since that is not at all what the Committee he chairs said in their recent report:
“it is not clear how the relationship between HM Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS), responsible for operational management, and the Ministry, responsible for policy and commissioning, will work in practice. This lack of clarity could make it harder to see what is going wrong in prisons and why, and confusion about who is responsible for what could make prisons less safe and effective”.
* MoJ refused to appear or make any statement to the Newsnight programme on 2 August; all we have from Lidington on the crisis is his banal 'open letters'. But being new in the job will only work as alibi for so long....
** Lidington will be familar with this gambit: he started his political life as Howard's PPS. Maybe someone should ask him if he thinks 'prisons works'.
Q. Who doubts that Grayling's staffing cuts precipitated the worst prison crisis in a quarter of a century?
A. Only one person. Unfortunately, that person is the Justice Secretary.
The latest ratings for prison performance (for 2016/17) have just been published. They show that the descent of the prison system into violent chaos is actually accelerating. Last year, no fewer than 10 prisons were judged to be 'of serious concern' - before Grayling's cuts, there were none. Looking at the chart below, mapping staffing cuts against deteriorating performance, who can doubt the causal link? Grayling's cuts were dangerous, irresponsible and are costing lives. And everyone agrees. Except, that is, for successive Tory Justice Secretaries, who continue to deny it (as must, therefore, officials). Truss reversed only a fraction of the cuts: most of them remain in place - and neither she nor Gove ever conceded the causal link; nor will Lidington. For 2 reasons: they cannot blame a Cabinet colleague; and they cannot get the money to restore more than a fraction of the cuts. Consequently, no Tory Justice Secretary can give a straight answer to the question: our prisons were doing fairly well until 2012, now they are a complete disaster area - what caused that change? Truss's White Paper, for example, was a masterpiece of evasion on that question (see Note below.)
Staffing cuts and prison performance, 2010-2017
Left hand axis: staff numbers in public sector prisons (end March)
Right axis: % of prisons rated as causing 'serious concern' by NOMS
Truss's White Paper contained a passage on the causes of the growing instability and violence in prisons which was misleading (and the same approach to the use of statistics was evident in her speech on prison reform this Spring). This is what I said to the Select Committee about it:
Annex B: misleading use of statistics
The WP is keen (172) to blame rising violence and self-harm since 2012 on changes in the makeup of the prison population. This passage is misleading in its use of evidence, in several respects:
Today we had the annual report from the Office for National Statistics on crime. As ever, it's a model of its kind: takes you remarkably easily through the complex issues about the two sets of crime data: crime as recorded by police forces; and British Crime Survey (which records the actual experience of crime of a representative sample of the British people). It's nuanced, fair, clear, balanced. All without dumbing down, It is in fact something we should perhaps be a little bit proud of, and certainly grateful for.
I'll blog later on the detail, but the bottom line is, there is some evidence suggesting that the staggeringly large, unexplained long term fall in crime since 1995 (which has been mirrored across most of the developed world) may be bottoming out, or even for some types of crime, rising again - but it really isn't clear from the data we have. What is clear is that we are still hugely safer than we were in 1995 or even in 2005.
I am interested in the media response. The long decline in crime has of course been a source of deep unhappiness to many, particularly the media and parties of the Right, because fear (of crime, amongst other things) is such a mainstay of the Right. If they can make you scared - of crime, or immigrants, of terrorism, of war - you will be more submissive to the established order, and less inclined to question things about society which the Right would rather you didn't question. (Of course, not all fears work satisfatorily: fear of climate change, for example, does not fit their agenda.)
The decline in crime, and the consequent reduction in the public's concern about crime (see the figures previously on this blog, at: http://www.julianlevay.com/articles/crime-as-an-issue-in-this-election), clearly troubled the Right media. Here's a comment I made on this phenomenon some years back in the Guardian:
"Yesterday we had some extraordinarily good news on crime. Rates for burglary and robbery were down 8% and 9% on last year, drugs and violence down 4%. Murder is the lowest for 20 years, knife crime also down. Surveys show that risk of being a victim of crime is at a historic low. A remarkable story, which you covered at length.
Here's how other papers covered it. The Times had a news in brief item on page 9, the Telegraph a few column inches positioned within a story about Munir Hussain. Both linked it to a cut in funding for a (very small) community safety programme. The Telegraph happily found rises in some rural areas. The Sun and Mail decided to spare their readers this upsetting news altogether, while devoting pages to stories of violent crimes.
Crime remains, of course, a huge and worrying problem. But what chance can there be of tackling it rationally, if as a society we have become so addicted to fear that we are simply unable to process positive news?"
So, no surprise that today' figures - or rather, some of them – were greeted with something like glee by the Right tabloids.
The Mail's article on this today is a model of its kind: essentially misleading, but mostly without actually lying.,
Start with the headline:
Soaring incidents of theft and knife crime are behind the largest rise in recorded crime for a DECADE
Well, if you read the ONS report, it's very clear that:
So the headline is basically junk. But there's more: the grouping of 'theft and knife crime' is a masterpiece. 'Theft' offences increased by 123,000; knife crime, by....6,000. So the increase in knife crime is minute, compared to the increase in theft. And the joining of the two in one group is entirely arbitrary. But what the reader absorbs is that reference to knife crime, as being the cause of soaring crime. Job done!
The there's the oldest trick in the book: distorting graph scales. So, on police figures, violence against the person rose from 430k to 465k, which in a graph, doesn't look much if the vertical scale starts at zero. But if you start the vertical scale at 410 – and then put the bars in bloody red – you'll get the impact you want. Repeat this deception for all other crime groups. Job done.
Then throw in a photo of bleeding victims of the Manchester bombing – of course, that didn't even happen in the year in question, but the reader won't notice. And those numbers are tiny, irrelevant in the scale of this analysis of 'soaring crime'.. Never mind, it leaves the vivid impression that this is what 'soaring' crime is about - bleeding, mutilated figures being helped to safety by shocked bystanders: it gets the reader's juices going, which is what the Mail wants.
In some places, the Mail's story blatantly misrepresents the data. In recent years, the BCS has started to include figures for computer based crime (scams, ransom-ware attacks and such). There are a lot of them – they pretty much double the BCS stats. But we only have the data for a couple of years and the ONS say, very clearly:
Valid year-on-year comparisons of CSEW estimates including the new fraud and computer misuse figures will not be available until January 2018, when 2 full years of data are available.
So we've no idea how this new sort of crime might have changed over the years. Such niceties do not confine the Mail, who state:
When fraud and computer misuse offences are included, the total number of estimated crimes hits 11 million, which is above the level of that estimated in the same period a decade ago.
That's rubbish, because we have no such data for a decade ago.
Does this manipulation and mis-statement of data matter? Of course it does. Crime is a serious problem, so it's vital we understand it as best we can. But that isn't the Mail's agenda, which is to create fear. And here's the impact the Mail is looking for on its readers, in a BTL comment on the article:
Its sky rocketed! its scary out there and the worse part is much of it doesnt get reported anymore so the real numbers are a lot lot worse. 15-20 years ago where I'm from you rarely heard of st ab bings and mu rde rs now its nearly a daily story infact on average from the last stats I read in that area r a pe is reported every two days! and thats just the ones who are brave enough to come forward and tell teh police! its shocking your not safe here any more.
Of course, this is pitiable nonsense: the ONS show that crimes of violence involving injury are down 60%, compared to 1995. Yep, down by way more than half. But the Mail exists to hype up such fears, not to correct them – and it works.
As a consequence of the media's scaremongering, we have a doubling of the prison population since 1995, at vast cost (money not going into the NHS, and a prison system near to breakdown), for almost zero benefit. And still we build new prisons - we've been building prisons continuously now for a third of a century, since the early 19080s.
And sadly, it's not just the Mail – the Guardian article, though far more informative and balanced, also can barely conceal its glee, albeit for a different political purpose – the figures may cause trouble for May:
(And, to be even-handed, one should note that most of the rise in prison numbers occured under Labour, not the Tories; that Labour drove numbers up deliberately eg through the lamentable legislation introducing IPP sentences; and that even today, Corbyn's New Old Labour says nothing about our excessive use of imprisonment, and the contribution that makes to appalling conditons in prison. Labour has no crime policy of its own: just borrows the Tory ones.)
But ultimately, I don't blame the politicians, or even the media. The media give us what we crave: and that's clearly bad news – things are bad, worse than ever, will get even worse, and someone's to blame. We are an unhappy country; because, I think, at some level, we desire to be unhappy. Proof of that, surely, is the complete absence of any interest in the media, or from any political party, in the remarkable fall in crime, one of the great social problems of the 20th century: a triumph of modern civilisation, which we preferred simply not to notice. Until, that is, this year, we can at last hope it just might be going up again.
Four years ago today the Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling, told a shocked House of Commons that he had discovered that for years SERCO and G4S had been billing his Department for work they had not done, to the tune of £200m, and that he was referring them to the Serious Fraud Office for possible prosecution.
Today, the SFO enters the fifth year of its investigation into the case, with still no decision on whether to bring charges or not.
Now, the SFO is not known for its turn of speed. It is the Land that Time Forgot. Investigations start, and geological eras pass before anything happens. Its motto is surely taken from Psalms, 90:
For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday
Of course, complex fraud can take much time to unpick. When it involves thousands of victims, for example; or highly complex financial instruments; or labyrinthine networks of companies; or movements of money to and fro across jurisdictions, with conflicting legal frameworks; or records that have been destroyed or altered; or culprits on the run, or in countries that resist extradition.
Except that none of that applies here. The case turns on a couple of contracts, which are readily available; the companies are fully cooperative; there is only one victim, the Government; one legal system; no-one is on the run. There can rarely, perhaps never, been a case before the SFO which is so lacking in complexity.
Why then the delay? Has the SFO been subject to savage cuts? Hardly; its spend on staffing has increased considerably since the referral. It can't possibly be – surely not! – the wish of certain politicians to bury uncomfortable news, say by announcing the decision on the day Parliament rises. No, I think the explanation must simply be cultural: if you are accustomed to taking years, years is what you take.
Does it matter? It does. People are under suspicion, or fear they might be under suspicion, for years on end. That is extremely stressful, for them, their families, and presumably makes employment impossible. To hold people in such a state for years is oppressive. It is, in fact, unjust.
It is also against our interest. Outsourcing is hugely unpopular, the polls consistently show. But the Tories persist with it, despite the remarkable lack of evidence, in most cases, that it benefits the tax payer, or service users. Now here is the worst ever scandal of wrong doing by outsourcers – and the equal scandal of Government's ability to properly control or sanction them. So much so, that the Ministry of Justice has just seen fit to re-award the same contact to G4S, even while the investigation continues that might charge with with a colossal fraud.
And yet, we, the public, do not have the facts. We do not know what happened. Who did what, when. And that ignorance is precisely because of the SFO inquiry. Because of the sub judice rules, no-one is allowed to know anything: the auditors themselves, the NAO, had to truncate their inquiry, though what they did reveal is damning enough. And if the SFO decide against charges, and there are not court proceedings, we may never know, because of the lapse of time. That, of course, would suit both the companies and MoJ, whose interests are very closely aligned, if indeed distinguishable at all.
So, come on SFO: wake up, order in some strong coffee, do your duty and reach a decision. Some time before the 5th anniversary comes round.
The news leaked over the weekend that the MoJ has just re-awarded the contract for electronic tagging to G4S - 4 years almost to the day after the then Justice Secretary announced to a shocked House of Commons that they had been discovered to have invoiced the MoJ over many years for £100m of work they simply hadn't done, on exactly those same contracts, and that he was referring them to the Serious Fraud Office.
And the SFO still havent said whether G4S will face criminal charges! (Or does MoJ have some private understanding with SFO...?)
In my book, I suggested that the relationship between MoJ and the big outsourcers might have become 'an unhealthy, indeed anti-competitive, co-dependency' - and many* will feel that this is a highly questionable decision.
* Eg The Times, 9 July: "Sara Murray, boss of rival bidder Buddi, tweeted: “G4S wins MoJ tagging contract while still under Serious Fraud Office investigation for overcharging . . . Beggars belief!” Murrays' own bruising encounter with MoJ procurement is recounted here:
SEE ALSO https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/jul/12/new-tagging-system-criminals-scaled-back-ministry-failings
That's what the latest re-offending statistics say. That just as the prison system descended into the worst crisis in a generation, post Grayling, prisons were doing their job better and better:
Adult proven re-offending rate, %
It is high time we question the current assumption that changes in the re-offending rate measure the performance of the prison or probation services. Plainly, they do not, or at least, they don't measure marginal changes in any reliable way. Any more than changes in the crime rate measure the performance of the police.
We must therefore ditch the ideological-driven nonsense of payment by results (PBR), not least because it is is likely to reward the CRCs which are failing so badly according to many inspection reports, including the recent coruscating one on 'Through the gate' services, see my last article - and which would collapse altogether, had not the MoJ agreed to stuff more money into them, quite irrespective of what results they achieve.
Not such much payment by results as money for old rope.
The latest report on the working of 'Through the gate' services in prisons – under which private companies ('Community Rehabilitation Companies') are contracted to prepare prisoners for release into the community – is one of the most damning inspection reports I have ever read.
Admittedly, this transition from prison to community was ever the Achilles heel of the correctional system. Partly because it was at the junction of so many different organisation, each of which was needed to assist, and all of which were heavily stretched by their main role (and many of which have IT systems that couldn't talk to each other); partly because offenders have many needs which relate to risk of re-offending and which are not easy to meet (drugs, alcohol, low skills, no accommodation, mental illness – you name it); and partly because split responsibilities and poor metrics meant no-one was really accountable for results, nor were they readily visible publicly. (Ironically, although prisons are always portrayed as closed institutions, invisible to the outside world, it is nowadays pretty easy to spot a failing prison: failing probation services, not so much).
So the CRCs, the fruit of Grayling's privatisation of probation, were given the job. (Or I should say, partial privatisation: just to make things more interesting, a truncated public sector probation service remained in each area, dealing with the more risky and difficult offenders – thus instead of one probation service working with all offenders, there are now always two. Some rationalisation!) The idea was that CRCs, being private sector, would – of course! - do the job so much better that they could be paid by results, in terms of reducing re-offending.
So, how is that working out?
This is what the joint inspection team says:
“CRCs are making little difference to their [prisoners'] prospects on release. We found them no better served than their more transient fellow prisoners were some eight months ago. The overall picture was bleak. If Through the Gate services were removed tomorrow, in our view the impact on the resettlement of prisoners would be negligible [my emphasis]”
Of 98 prisoners they saw, none had been helped into employment; only 2 into accommodation; only 1 had been given a mentor to help him after release. One third of resettlement plans make no provision for meeting the recognised needs of prisoners. Most staff didn't understand public protection issues, so there was inadequate assessment of risk to the public and inadequate mitigation of those risk.
Why has so much effort – including the costly, disruptive wholesale reorganisation of the entire probation service – made absolutely no difference at all on the ground?
A couple of things stand out.
First (deep breath): the contracts do not require the CRCs to make any difference. All the contracts require – the single outcome they specify – was that the CRC produced resettlement plans for each prisoner. So they did. They produced....paper. The CRC staff didn't actually have to do anything for the prisoners – they merely emailed away to agencies outside that might, perhaps, help them. They didn't ever check whether they were helping them. In fact, in most cases the CRC staff didn't know what happens to them once released, so they didn't even know they are failing.
Second, in many cases, the CRCs didn't talk to or work with the prison staff, who had been working with prisoners up to the point of release. I mean literally did not talk to them, in some cases – or simply couldn't talk to them, because they use a multitude of separate IT systems. Even those who were working with the same prisoners in the same prison:
"In HMP Rochester, workers have to record in six different places after interviewing a prisoner for their resettlement plan: NOMIS, OASys, nDelius, the CRC ‘front sheet’, the Through the Gate tracker, and an email to the responsible officer in the community
"We were told that some prisons in the south east of England had been exempted from completing prisoner screenings due to staff shortages. They were producing blank screening documents, which provided no information for Through the Gate staff when they came to complete resettlement plans.
"In HMP Holme House, we found a real lack of integration between the offender supervisors and the CRC staff. Neither knew what the other was doing
What will happen now? Well, ironically, there's a fair chance that the CRCs will be paid for 'results', despite this appalling report. Re-offending has been slowly falling for some years, despite the descent of the prison and probation services into chaos. This is why I have argued that payment by results, like so much Tory dogma on the management of services, is a nonsense. The truth is, we don't know why offending rises and falls.
And in any case, I hear that the MoJ has decided that because the volume assumptions on which privatisation was based have proved wrong, they will stuff a lot more money into the CRCs, on top of the original contract. This is called 'risk transfer': i.e. when the going gets tough, the private sector transfer risk back to the public sector. It's a bit awkward, isn't it, to announce you are giving more money to companies because they are failing, when you said you'd give them money for succeeeding: so expect this to be announed on the day Parliament breaks up.
The report makes various recommendations. I suggest one more: that the officials who wrote these useless contracts, and the officials who signed off on them, and the Permanent Secretary at that time, should all be brought back before the Justice Committee and given a grilling, whether still in that post or not. Chances of that happening? About the same as a smooth, trouble-free Brexit. The Civil Service may not be good at much, but it surely knows how to defend itself.
Finally, one important thing we have got right. On this showing, we still have well-informed, intelligent people who combine can passion with fine judgement (and remarkable restraint!) in the often thankless roles of Chief Inspectors of Prisons and of Probation – despite Grayling's best efforts to interfere with the selection process (1). It's vital that this appointment be taken away from the very politicians who have most to fear from Chief Inspectors who do their job fearlessly, as (on this showing) these two do.
Can it really be only a year since we voted for Brexit? It seems so much longer. One cannot any longer mentally take oneself back to the time before, when we were accustomed to being in the EU and didn't for one moment believe we could really ever be so stupid as to vote to leave. It's the same about the 2008 crash; one can't really believe now that there was a time when the only question was just how fast pubic services and benefits should grow, and which should grow fastest.
How on earth did we come to this? I've been thinking about it since offering myself as a subject to an academic who is exploring just that question: how did individuals assume the positions they now have, Remain or Leave?
Particularly since in the years just before the Referendum, it's pretty clear that most us, whether pro or anti EU, simply didn't care that much. In 2014, when what were the most important issues facing the country, just 4 % spontaneously mentioned the EU. It wasn't even in the top ten concerns that people had (1).
Of course, the UK's relationship with the EU (previously EEC) has always been fraught. Public opinion had been volatile, not to say skittish, over the decades. We joined in 1973 without a popular vote. Twice before Cameron, Prime Minsters riding a wave of popular antipathy towards the EU negotiated improved terms before securing approval for continued membership, including the previous referendum in 1975. In fact, public opinion was never so overwhelmingly anti EU as in Thatcher's early premiership - yet she was the one who ensured continued membership then, while Labour opposed it, facts 'forgotten' by both parties now.
Chart 1: public concern about EU over time
Chart 2 views on leaving/remaining over time
But British views on the EU were always more complex and nuanced that the binary choice, Leave/Remain.. In the 2015 edition of 'British social attitudes', John Curtice, doyenne of British pollsters, showed that while usually only a minority had been consistently clear that they really wanted to Leave come what may, many Remainers also had reservations about the EU, and wanted reform (I came into this category myself, see my post of 31 May 2016 ) (2) . Few were ever unreservedly pro EU, or fully accepted it as it was. But at the same time, polls show that many who were unkeen on the EU did value some things about it: the protection of workers' rights, free trade with the EU and free movement of Brits into the EU (but as we will see, what many people seemingly meant was a one-way street).
So the British seemed to have a majority for reluctant acceptance that being in the EU was better than not, weighing up costs and benefits. But what they really wanted was a reformed EU, re-made in a way that suit them better. Of course, there were different views on what 'reformed' meant – something not adequately explored by Cameron, who seemed happy to take whatever was offered him and present it to the UK public as significant change.
Curtice also showed that the British thought about the EU in 2 different ways : instrumentally I.e. in times of practical benefits and results (stronger among the middle classes who benefited most) and in terms of identity, such as cultural cohesion and owning 'control'. There was a ready feeling, egged on by right wing media, that the EU was intruding excessively into things that ought to be for the UK to decide on. Britons felt they wanted to be 'in Europe but not run by Europe', a phrase which seems to capture the majority pre-Referendum mood.
That is borne out by the regular survey of public opinion in each EU country (3), which has always placed the UK towards the Euro-sceptic end of the spectrum, but especially as regards the possible expansion of the EU's role (e.g. a European army, common foreign and defence policy, full economic and monetary union). Similarly, Britons never shared Blair's enthusiasm for the Euro (a fate Brown saved us from, and deserves more credit for doing so.)
The issue of identity became linked particularity to worries about immigration, which rose enormously after the mid 1990s, first from outside the EU and then later in the mid 2000s from within the EU (I wonder how far the public ever really distinguished the two?). The UK was far from alone on this, indeed in EU surveys some other countries reported greater concern than us on the issue, and in no less than 20 countries it was reported as the top public concern in the EU survey in 2015. But the UK was shown consistently least supportive of free movement within the EU and most likely to see control of immigration as issue for national Government, not the EU. Within UK politics, immigration was, by far, identified as a key issue by voters by the middle of this decade.
On this reading, the refugee crisis of 2015, including Merkel's dramatic pronouncement of a massive numbers of which every country 'must' take its share, and scenes of violent chaos on the borders, was tailor-made to drive the UK to vote Leave. (If, as has been suggested, Russia worked with Assad deliberately to drive a million refugees in Europe's direction, his strategy was brilliantly successful.)(4)
The result of these concerns about identity was that UKIP, which had done remarkably poorly in the 2010 (only 3% of the vote), began to gain traction. It came first in the European Parliamentary elections in 2014, they got 17% in the simultaneous local elections, and 2 Tory MPs defected. Cameron, to stave off UKIP inroads into Tory votes, offered the Referendum, misreading the polls which in headline terms still seemed favourable to Leave, but not detecting the shift in underlying attitudes from instrumental issues to issues of identity, or believing he could negotiate real concessions on migration. But in the end he secured remarkably little change, and none of substance on the key issue, migration.
This distinction played into the campaign itself. Leave understood that the issue was identity and especially immigration: hence the appalling Leavers' lie, that Goebbels would have admired, that a million Turks were on our way here to rape your wives and daughters (5)
While Remain utterly failed to run the instrumental argument that being in the EU (including migration from as well as to the rest of the EU) had given us great benefits. Mandelson describes the decision by the the Remain campaign not to explain what the open market meant, and how greatly it benefited us (6).- Instead, relying on warnings of catastrophe, which were simply not believed.
The effect of this bitterly divisive campaign was to destroy the more nuanced, balanced understanding that had existed, and force everyone into one side or the other of a strictly binary choice. It also seemed to rule out the possibility, however remote, of 'reform' some time in the future. This polarisation is shown in real time by analysis by the British Election Survey of how, during the campaign, people began with increasing strength to identify with the community of Leavers or Remainers – and continued to do so after the vote. What is striking is that while the Leave group was more strongly cohesive at the start, Remainers became more so towatds the end - and their cohesivness, their feeling of being part of a beleagured community, intensified remarkably in the shock of defeat. The democratic process iself drove us apart.
Chart 3: increasing polarisation during the Referendum campaign, and after
That was been my own experience. Before the Referendum, I was pretty Eurosceptic, that is to say, while I never really wanted to leave, I was aware of how dysfunctional the EU was (and is) and how incapable of reform. But the moment we were asked to vote whether we really, seriously wanted to leave, I had no doubt that leaving must mean a huge and permanent loss of wealth, and of influence in Europe and beyond. But more than that, it means mentally turning our backs on the world and turning back to the past.
The Campaign itself solidified my views. I met many Europeans while canvassing in Oxford, a great international city, and though how much I liked having them around, how much I had in common with them as they wished us luck; I met ardent Leavers whose reactionary values, contempt for foreigners, credulity for blatant lies and sheer wilful ignorance I found repugnant. At national level, too, the lies, hate-filled nationalism and outright racism of the Leave campaign appalled me. So I started by thinking instrumentally, but ended up putting more weight on identity: only my identity turned out not to be nationality.
So that was what happened: a majority for a sceptical, nuanced , pragmatic acceptance of the EU was over- turned by botched handling of immigration by the EU, failure by Cameron to secure signifiant reform, by a vicious, xenophobic and racist campaign, and by the very nature of the Referendum itself, which forced us to take one side or the other, forced us all into our trenches, which we began to dig and reinforce against attack. And now the British people are terribly divided: polls show that remarkably few have changed their view since the vote, we comfort and support 'our' people in 'our' side and stare at the enemy lines through periscopes across 'no-mans land', which is where we used to live. The enemy is ourselves.
Not the least poisonous aspect of this is the excruciatingly slow pace. If Brexit had been over and done within months, we might now be on our way to adjusting to it. But it moves glacier like. It will be years and year before we fully leave. And then years before we fully see and understand the consequences, economic, geopolitical, cultural, psychological, social. And in the meantime, all we will hear about, all we think about, is Brexit, Brexit, Brexit. Parliament itself is devoting the best part of 2 years to nothing but. And every twist and turn of the process injects remains us how right we are, how wrong they are. It This process will take the rest of my life. I will die to the tune of Brexit.
So let us now all agree to curse the man who is principally to blame for this: David Cameron. Is there, in all our history, a Prime Minister who has done greater harm to this country? The man who played Russian roulette with this country's prosperity, influence and sense of community, for personal and party political advantage. And lost. The man who fired the first shot in the civil war that propelled us into our trenches.
And is he now contrite? Well, here's what he had to say recently:
“Obviously I regret the personal consequences for me. I loved being prime minister. I thought I was doing a reasonable job, But I think it was the right thing. The lack of a referendum was poisoning British politics and so I put that right.”
(6) See my post of 6.7.2016
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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