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
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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