RAINSBROOK TELLS US TWO THINGS. MTC ISN'T FIT TO RUN PRISONS. AND THE MoJ ISN'T FIT TO RUN PRISON CONTRACTS
SEE UPDATE AT THE END OF THIS
* Amended 23/6 to refer to COVID outbreak *
The Justice Secretary has just announced that Rainsbrook Secure Training Centre, run under contract by MTC, has been treating the children it its care so badly for so long that he’s taking all the children out of it. It’s a saga that tells us that not only is MTC not fit to run prisons, but MoJ is not fit to run prison contracts.
Secure Training Centres
The Management and Training Corporation (MTC) is an American company that runs 24 prisons in the US, also training schemes for young adults. It gained a foothold in the UK with the privatisation of probation, running the service in 2 areas. Privatisation was an unmitigated disaster and has now been reversed. In 2016 the MoJ gave it the contract to run Rainsbrook Secure Training Centre, which had had a troubled history under G4S. It got worse under MTC. Three successive inspection reports were negative (jointly between Prisons Inspectorate, Ofsted and the CQC for healthcare). Despite this, the MoJ last year extended the contract to 2023.
To be fair to MTC, no company has made a success of STCs, a sort of prison for children, introduced by Michael Howard, but then carried forward by Labour. Four were built, under the Private Finance Initiative. They exemplify the perennial problem – possibly never entirely solvable – of providing in the same place both secure custody for children who’ve been convicted of sometimes quite serious crimes, and also care and education provision for children who are often seriously damaged, disturbed and disruptive. They are small units, 80 or so fully occupied, with high staffing levels and hugely expensive (1). Two have been closed, two remain, while the MoJ dithers about what’s to replace them. Meanwhile, as the number in custody shrinks, the remaining population has become much more difficult.
The failure of MTC
When the Inspectors returned in October last year, they were so appalled at what they found that they met the MoJ officials and wrote to Buckland on 5 November, who replied on 18 November saying that necessary action was being taken. That inspection report is here. When the inspectors returned in December, they found little evidence of progress. Children were locked in their bedrooms for 23 1/2 hours out of 24. On 16 December the inspectorate issued an Urgent Notification to Buckland, their last resort where institutions don’t just fail, but fail unacceptable and persistently (2). They said:
“Children’s daily experiences were bleak. They continue to receive a spartan regime. They receive little encouragement to get up in the mornings and there are very few efforts by staff to engage meaningfully with children…. there is no evidence of children’s’ educational entitlement being met…. senior managers were unaware of the regime.”
Whatever your views on crime, who in Hell’s name could think such a place could do other than lasting harm to deeply troubled children? Even Priti Patel might blench.
Buckland replied on 15 January, again saying that the necessary action was in hand. The inspectors returned on 26 January and found some improvement - an action plan had been drawn up - but little of it actually actioned. In March the Justice Committee held a special one off session and questioned the inspectors, Buckland, MoJ officials and MTC managers. The transcript is here.
It should be said that the Committee’s session focussed primarily on the Urgent Notification and the report made at that time. It paid relatively little attention to the brief report of the further visit in January, which noted some early signs of improvement. Nor did the Committee pay much attention to the fact that there was a COVID outbreak at the time, causing staff to be off duty and requiring newly arrived children to be isolated (though Oakhill STC managed isolation with a lot more time out of cell) .MTC may well have felt aggrieved at that. And it was especially hard on the new Director, Ian Mulholland, who’d arrived only on 4 January. But clearly MTC had by then expended all credit with its critics. It had had one too many drinks in the Last Chance Saloon. The unfortunate Mulholland arrived just in time to pickup the tab.
The Committee reported on 29 March (2), saying that they were
‘shocked and appalled by what we heard’ and were ‘deeply concerned about MCs ability to manage the Rainsbrook contract’.
What shocked them most was that not only did the MoJ and YCS not know, at the time of the inspection, the state of affairs at Rainsbrook, but neither did MTC managers on site. Indeed, when inspectors told them face to face, in their December visit, that children were still being locked up 23/12 hours a day, the response by MTC managers was first to tell the inspectors they were wrong, and then to add that the children themselves were wrong.
Here’s the Ofsted Inspector:
“When I sat…with the director and deputy director and said ‘Children are still being locked up for 23 1/2 hours a day’ and they said ‘We don’t think they are’, I do not think they were lying. I just do not think they know the basic principles of going once a day to talk to the children…they were just not doing it…it was utter incompetence.’
The inspectors pinpointed the root of the problem:
“senior managers issues instructions; they write procedures and protocols, often very detailed; but they are not implemented at middle and junior management level…. they do not have the means…. to follow through to make sure these things happen on a day-to-day basis, so they just keep repeated….”
This is a familiar problem in prison management. The task of ‘managing upwards’ is very time consuming, and more so when an institution is in trouble and there are lots of inspectors and lots of questions. But all the more important to ‘walk the walk, and talk the talk’ to ensure that you are not blinded or mislead by all the paper, and that what you said should happen is happening.
What makes this incomprehensible in this case – certainly to the Justice Committee – is the tiny scale of this institution. In a prison of 1,800 prisoners and maybe 500 staff spread out between many blocks and with layer upon layer of management, such a failure to check on reality would be more comprehensible. But this unit had, at the time of the last inspection, just 45 occupants. 45! From the Director’s office to the children’s rooms was a 2 minute walk. But they just did not do it. Moreover staff: prisoner ratio, 1:5 in some adult jails, was here more like 1:1, or even lower (3). How could managers not know the reality of something so fundamental as time out of room - something inspection after inspection had focussed on as unacceptable, and on which MTC gave assurances to the MoJ which were simply untrue?
To my mind, this alone should disqualify MTC from any further contracts for custodial facility in this country. If it gets the basics of management this wrong, under this much external pressure, in such a tiny, heavily staffed unit, how on earth could they cope with a 1,800 prisoner new prison?
The report reveals other fundamental and long-standing problems with MTC’s operation:
I suspect there is another problem behind this all. MTC is a huge American company with a tiny UK business, that’s not doing at all well. The majority of Directors of MTC (UK) appear, from the accounts, to be Americans. I have experience of just such an environment in the IT sector. I know how difficult it is to get backing or even understanding from the US parent for the very different trading and operating environment of the UK – especially when, as is the case with Rainsbrook, they were not making a profit. (I’ve seen critics denounce MTC for making money while failing the children in its care: incredibly, it didn’t.) I suspect the UK business was not regarded at all positively by the American parent, especially after the failure of the bid for Wellingborough prison, and the collapse of the probation contracts.
Then there is another failure, equally fundamental to a good contractual relationship. Incredibly, MTCs reaction to the inspector’ comments, and (it would seem therefore) Buckland’s decision to withdraw all children from the unit, is to say that they are wrong! They said :
“Given the previous positive assessments, including Ofsted’s follow up visit in January, we were very surprised to receive Ofsted’s feedback at the end of last week’s inspection. We have a number of concerns about their approach and ultimately the conclusions they have reached. We plan to vigorously challenge this as we go through the fact checking process”
And this is MTCs’ preferred style – confrontation, not contrition. We’ve seen they told the inspectors to their face they were wrong – that the children were wrong about what they were actually experiencing. Mulholland then upset the Justice Committee by declaring that MTC would only accept Inspector’s recommendations they thought ‘fair and grounded in evidence’– an exceptionally foolish thing to say, in the circumstances. Likewise, in the recent competition run Wellingborough prison, when their bid was unsuccessful, they immediately threaten legal action against MoJ. ( Again I suspect this comes from the very different American background, where there are many possible customers, so you can afford a fight – here, one only, and you can’t.)
The relationship between a prison contractor and its customer is a subtle one. Relying just on the formalities of the contract is not enough. These contracts are long term – typically 15 years for prisons – and inevitably, in prisons, there are problems, inevitably, requirements change, and inevitably, sensitivities to be managed with ministers, with the media. So there has to be some sense of partnership, and partnership must be based on mutual trust and understanding of each other’s position, without of course losing sight of their fundamentally different roles.
MTCs track record of assuming such an adversarial role – and so quickly and so publicly – suggests to me that it will not be possible for them to enter into the right sort of long-term relationship with MoJ as customer. I am not, God knows, saying MoJ is always right. And in fact, I have sympathy for the stance that what is to be done in an institution should be determined by MoJ as customer, not by an outfit whose role is inspection and which is not charged with considering the resource consequences, feasibility or effectiveness of its recommendations, nor considering other approaches. But it’s the bull-headed way MTC charge at its critics frontally and publicly that is so unacceptable.
For all these reasons – the failure over many years to provide a decent environment for children, the failure over a long period to do what they said they’d do, the failure in the basic management grip on what is going on in the institution, the high turnover of staff and mangers alike, the lack of understanding of work with children, and the ready assumption of a legalistic, adversarial relationship with MoJ and the inspectorates – it seems inconceivable that MoJ can now ever offer MTC a contract to run any custodial institution.
MTC is currently on the MoJ’s framework agreement to enable it to bid to run new, 1800 place adult prisons. It should now be removed. MTC has no prospect of significant further business in the correctional services of the UK. And that means, looking at its accounts, it would then no longer be viable in the UK. It is finished.
The failure of the MoJ
A truism to which I often return, so often ignored by those criticising the private sector, is that when a service is being supplied under contract, failure by the contractor very often reveals failure by the customer also. Failure to properly appraise the supplier before contract, failure to specific the service properly, buying a service too cheaply, failure to get the commercial terms or performance sanctions right, failure to manage the contract properly, failure to deal with failure, failure to ensure a competitive market. As I note in my book, most of these have applied at one time or another to the market in corrections in the UK.
And this applied in spades to the Rainsbrook saga. Something the Justice Committee understood:
‘The Ministry of Justice, Youth Custody Service and HMPPS are equally responsible for some failings at Rainsbrook because of significant and fundamental failings in the way they have overseen what happened there…. the YCS and MoJ manifestly failed to understand what the conditions were at Rainsbrook…and it is a question that goes wider than..…one custodial institution.’
The inspectors also understood this. They told the Committee:
“You cannot lay this solely at the door of the provider. The YCS when it contracts for a service does not absolve itself of responsibility for making sure the service is delivered…”
I set out here different ways in which the MoJ, in which I include the YCS and HMMPS, failed to do their job as customer for Rainsbrook and for youth custody services generally.
1. They did not know what was going on
This is perhaps the most extraordinary thing: that MoJ did not know that children were being locked up 23 1/2 hours a day. Of course, MTC consistently misled them. But – here’s the thing -the great strength of contacting for prisons in the UK, unlike the US, is that the customer has a permanent staff of monitors within the prison. At Rainsbrook, there were three YCS monitors working fulltime inside the institution. Three, full time! With just 54 children! Their failure to notice what was happening is even worse than that of MTC managers, because the monitors were there only you monitor what was actually happening. What on earth did they do with their days – in this tiny, tiny institution – is beyond comprehension. (MoJ’s response on this is a Civil Service classic: to appoint a fourth monitor!)
2. They extended the contract in 2020 - despite MTCs serious failures documented by inspection after inspection
The Justice Committee were perplexed by this, but, as with so much of this story, never got an answer from the MoJ. It is surely linked to MoJ’s other failure, their endless dithering over the future shape of youth custody, see 4) below. MoJ were perpetually ‘planning’ to replace STCs, having already closed 2, but are still years way from doing so. In those circumstances, no other provider would take on the poison chalice of Rainsbrook, two operators already having failed. Nor could the Prisons Service step in, because the whole point of STCs was to be an alternative to mainstream prison culture (and the absorption of that culture into Rainsbrook was part of the reason it failed).
3. The YCS failed to use the contract to push MTC into doing better
As I’ve said, a good contractual relationship doesn’t rely solely on contractual sanctions when dealing with persistent failure. But they a time comes when they should be used: they get the attention of senior management in the company because it’s all lost profit (4). My book showed this in relation to earlier failures by prison providers. And in the case of an institution which has failed so completely for so many years that the customer withdraws all business, you’d expect significant financial penalties. Well, the grand total for the 5 ears of MTC’s contractual failures at Rainsbrook is…£76k. Against a total contract value of £50 million. An irrelevance. I’ve FoI’d the details, but expect to be stonewalled – this Government has set up a unit specifically charged to obstruct FoI requests. So, I can’t say whether the fault was in the way the contract was written or the way the contract was managed, but either way, it makes a mockery of contracting. (By comparison, the operator of the now closed Medway STC was fined nearly £1 million.)
4. MoJ have dithered for years about the future of youth justice
Following the Taylor report in 2016, the Government accepted his recommendation to replace STCs with ‘Secure Schools’ and proposed two pilots would be opened, one in the north, the other in the south of the country (see Justice Committee's summary in their report on the future of youth custody, here ). They said the one in the south would open in 2020. That was then postponed, to 2022. And postponed again, to the end of 2022 (‘working towards’ December 2022, so let’s be clear, 2023). Seven years after the report. Never mind the points made by critics, that 1 or even 2 are not remotely enough, that there are still huge questions about what they will be like. This timetable means that STCs cannot be fully replaced for the best part of a decade after Taylor’s recommendations were accepted (certainly a decade after Grayling announced 'Secure Colleges' would be the future of youth custody, in 2013 - on which he spent some millions before cancelling 2015). And still MoJ cant spell out how they will be different from STCs (5).
The reason for the delay isn’t, as often with prisons, finding a site, nor planning consent – they are using the site of an old STC, it’s ready and waiting – but because MoJ let the contract to a charity only to find that….. a charity can’t legally run such an institution. They seemingly hadn’t thought to check.
This delay echoes the truly pathetic failure of the MoJ to deliver on the promise of 9 new prisons with 10, 000 new places, originally made in 2016, of which 5 were to have opened last year. In actuality the first will not open til 2022. That delay was also self-inflicted. MoJ believed they could only afford the programme through Private Finance. But HMT had decided to drop PFI. That meant a long and – of course! -doomed paperchase to persuade HMT change its mind.
5. The original choice of MTC to run Rainsbrook
As I say, MTC is an American company. When I was FD, we were dubious about appointing an American company as prison contractor, because of the very different culture of American prisons. MTC has since tried several times to enter the prisons market here and has consistently been rejected, most recently for the Wellingborough contract. Yet the YCS nevertheless appointed them to the far more specialised, notoriously sensitive job of looking after troubled children, of which the MTC had seemingly no experience, certainly not in the UK. (This is why, in my book I argued that an STC should never be a new operators first experience of running a custodial facility). Of course, G4S had already failed with its STCs, it is possibly that none of the other UK custodial operators – Sodexho, MITIE - wanted to get involved. Nevertheless, appointing MTC turned out to have precisely the consequence one might have predicted, a failure to understand the specialised work of STCs.
6. Organisational complexity
I do not know, but I suspect another factor is the labyrinthine structures and relationships with the MoJ. When I was FD of HMPS, things were blissfully straightforward. We held all the prison contracts; we had the procurement people and the contract managers and the operational managers; we decided , subject to ministers, what prisons should be asked to do: we decided on the shape of the make and how and when it should move forward. And, I may say, we made a fair success of it (little of that down to me, I should say – I had just very able procurement people).
As far as I can see for youth custody, the contracts are held by the Youth Custody Service, they rely on MoJ for procurement, someone in the MoJ decides on policy and on development of new operating models, the YCS answer to the head of HMPPS even though HMPPS also supply custodial services to the YCS….plenty of opportunity there for accountability to diffuse.
Note: what is the difference between the failure of MTC, and the failure of MoJ?
Come on – you know this! It is of course that people at MTC will lose their jobs, while no one in the MoJ will suffer the least consequence. That, Buckland has already made clear, at his appearance before the Committee. They never, ever do.
Why I've changed my mind on contracting for custody
My book, published in 2015, argued the case that competition for running custodial institutions worked to the public good. I think I now have to revisit that conclusion. Not because I think contracting out inherently wrong, nor because the private sector always does badly – in fact, at present, privately run adult prisons are doing better than publicly run ones. But because I have come to the conclusion that the MoJ is institutionally incompetent as customer. And as I’ve said before, an incompetent customer sooner rather than later leads to failure by the supplier.
As it has with contracts for probation, with Birmingham prison, with facilities management, with electronic tagging, now with Rainsbrook, and with the replacement, Secure Schools.
The catch 22 of outsourcing : a Government that isn't good at managing services is probably not good at managing outsourcing.
Afterword: the curious incident of the dog in the night time
And what of Barnardos, paid to supply an advocacy service for these children on site? It seems it did not bark…
UPDATE 22 JUNE
MoJ has just published here a further letter from Ofsted which explains why Buckland had to act to remove all children from Rainsbrook immediately. So much for MTCs extraordinary decision to publicly challenge Ofsted's findings. I doubt I've ever seen a more damning report, and that's certainly saying something.
I don't have any other place to say this, so.....
I've only just heard of the death of Kenneth Maclennan in 2016. He was a former banker, Standard Chartered I think, who went into headhunting and mentoring. Around 2002 I arranged for myself and fellow Directors of the Prison Service - those who wanted it! - to have a mentor or executive coach. By great good luck I got Kenneth. I was then way past the point of reform, and his one contribution was to tell me unequivovally to retire, advice I finally took a few years later, after failing (thank God! thank God!) to become FD of the MoD.
But I spent a number of sessions with him - first as purported mentoring, and later for drinks, lunch and walks - telling him what the senior civil service was like, which he seemed not have come across much, and my abiding memory of him is him laughing loudly, incredulously and with real pleasure at these stories.
It's a measure of the man that nearly two decades later I am surprised how upset I am to hear of his death. He seemed to me a good man, a kind man, and amused and amusing. He left surprisngly little evidence of himself, or his family , discoverable by google, but for sure he is the sort who is long remembered, and much missed, by those who knew him. I'm glad I knew him.
When you look into it, it's amazing how many famous quotes were never said, or at least not those words, not by that person. Einstein particularly. A vice of the Internet.
This one annoys me so regularly that I'm correcting it here. Douglas Hurd when Home Secretary famously said, 'prison is merely an expensive way of making bad people worse'. No, he didn't.
The 1990 White Paper, '"Crime, Justice and Protecting the Public' - actually published under his successor, 3 months after he left office - said: "Nobody now regards imprisonment, in itself, as an effective means of reform for most prisoners….. For most offenders, imprisonment has to be justified in terms of public protection, denunciation and retribution. Otherwise it can be an expensive way of making bad people worse."
The misquote is often associated with the semi-fact, that 'community punishments are more effective than prison at reducing reoffending'. I'll return to that.
On 15 and 16 March, the House of Commons debated the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. The Bill will increase time served for ‘serious’ crimes and contribute to Government policies which are forecast to increase the prison population, already proportionately the highest of any major European country, to nearly 100,000. This will necessitate a huge prison building programme. Each cell costs a quarter of a million pounds to build, enough to build a family home.
These sentencing policies are built on a series of untruths. What is so extraordinary is that each of these untruths is refuted by statistics which Government itself produces and, in one case, by the Minister responsible for sentencing policy himself.
We are faced with rising crime
Crime has fallen stupendously, almost unbelievably, since the mid-1990s (as it has done in other countries also). Regular surveys of victims show that violent crime, as experienced by the public, is down nearly 75% over the past quarter of a century.
Crime estimates by the CSEW 1981 to 2020
Violent crime is no exception. It too has fallen dramatically.
Some particular types of violent crime, like knife crime, have risen - but are now falling again, to around the level of a decade ago; and the numbers are small, and the crime highly localised.
Sexual assault is decreasing.
Conclusion: our streets are safer than they have been for several generations. This huge fall in crime is unprecedented for hundreds of years. But we apparently cannot bear to recognise it. We prefer to be afraid.
Longer sentences will cut crime
“Harsher sentencing tends to be associated with limited or no general deterrent effect. Increases in the certainty of apprehension and punishment have consistently been found to have a deterrent effect.” Typical left criminologist, eh? No. Actually, it’s Chris Philp, the minister responsible for sentencing police, answering a recent Question. Correctly summarising decades of criminological research. Days before his own policies for harsher sentencing were introduced in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. What better illustration of our strange post-truth, post-reason, post-shame politics.
See also here.
Longer sentences are needed to restore public confidence
The public have lost confidence in the courts to punish crime effectively, says the Government. Except, no. they haven’t. The contrary, in fact: for a decade, now, the public have steadily become more confident that the courts are fitting punishment to the crime.
Prison can be an effective way of rehabilitating offenders
Well, it isn’t and never has been, despite the avowed intent of every Home Secretary or Justice Secretary for the past quarter century that it should be, and the investment of hundreds of millions in programmes to do so, based on the best what works evidence, and this when the system was under far less pressure than today. More here, and here. In fact there is recent research that the more unsafe prisons are, the less good they are at cutting reoffending. And they have become far less safe since 2010 (1).
So, to summarise: the case against longer sentences is solid, well founded in easily available evidence. Almost no one mentioned any of this in the debate on 15/16 March. Instead, MPs queued up to say what a brilliant idea it is to increase sentences still further.
No surprise on the Tory benches, now purged of the great tradition of Liberal Toryism. Bob Neil, who as chair of the Justice Committee certainly knows better, went along with this orgy of punitiveness. He is not one to raise his head aboe the parapet. No Ken Clarke, he!
Labour continued its long and shameful (or rather, shameless) history of aping the Tories on sentencing. No surprise, really: the steepest rise in prisoner numbers occurred under the last Labour Government, as did the fastest ever prison building programme. Indeed, Labour specifically criticised the Government for not increasing sentences enough, for example for rape. Labour is the party of mass incarceration. ‘Tough on crime’, soft on thinking about crime.
Instead, Labour focused on identity politics – women, Roma. A historic mistake, in my view, and not just on crime. Yes, minorities are often ill served and need protection. But if that becomes your only selling point, you will never get the nation as a whole behind you and you will never tackle the great radical changes that are needed. Labour has become a party of sectional interests.
A word of special shame for Yvette Cooper. She chooses to highlight a rise in police recorded crime since 2015, although she must know that the very bulletin which she took the figure from said that the rise was an apparent one, reflecting improved recording practice; she knows that the same bulletin says that crime survey data is the acknowledged best measure of actual crime, not police statistics; she knows that violent crime is far less frequent today than in the mid-1990s. Yet she chooses to join the Tories in talking up an imaginary crime panic. I used to esteem her, among a lacklustre Labour gallery. Not so much now.
It was left to Liz Savile Roberts for Plaid Cymru and Anne McLaughlin for the SNP to oppose further growth in incarceration.. The fine English tradition of opposing mass imprisonment now survives only in the Celtic world. All honour to them. Not that anyone listened. No one listens, nowadays, do they?
(1) Katherine M. Auty & Alison Liebling. Justice Quarterly Volume 37, 2020 - Issue 2 6)
Parliament’s most powerful watchdog yesterday published a comprehensive account of the failure of the MoJ to get a grip on ‘unprecedented’ pressures and failures of the justice system.
So great is the backlog of cases in the criminal courts (most of which predates COVID), that cases are now being listed for 2 years’ time. But, says the PAC, MoJ’ s court ‘transformation’ programme, which is failing to deliver promised savings, lacks any clear end point and isn’t supported by adequate information. Barristers and others at the sharp end report on a system now heavily dependent on virtual hearings, which often breaks down, and is disadvantaging the most vulnerable.
The MoJ has chosen to vastly increase prisoner numbers, in any already badly overcrowded system, made more oppressive and unsafe by COVID. But are hugely ambitious prisons building programme (something at which MoJ has repeatedly failed in the last decade) isn’t funded and the growing backlog of essential maintenance may derail it.
MoJ is managing 15 major change programmes over every aspect of its work yet cannot explain how it is managing the extraordinary risks this poses, given its past record of failure on nearly every major programme in the past decade.
There is no realistic basis for funding MoJ beyond April 2022, if that, even though the costs of increasing police numbers, and tackling court backlogs, and increasing sentence lengths are enormous, and the probation and prison service are under enormous stress already.
(The PAC might have added that the criminal legal aid system is falling apart, cut by a third since 2010 and many firms ceasing to take the business.)
The PAC goes on to express concern about the pressures on probation and prison staff: ‘Unacceptable’ Buckland is content to call them ‘heroes’, and then hide behind their heroism, while cynically allowing those pressures to increase.
None of this however is new. Sadly, it has all been obvious for years. What is new is the dawning realisation that for a Government that is sufficiently shameless – and Johnson is a man born deformed, without the capacity for shame – it is perfectly possible just to ignore these things. To the denunciation of Commons Committees or the NAO or well informed reform groups or professional bodies or court findings of unlawful or improper behaviour or exposure by the one or two bits of the press not rabidly tory, just maintain a studied indifference. Because, in our elective dictatorship, none of these critics have any power. If you have a majority in the Commons and those of your MPs who want you out arent ready yet, tthere are no consequences for failure, however gross. One might call it the Grayling Conundrum.
‘Unacceptable’ Buckland doesn’t even need to reply, any more than his Cabinet colleagues do. Our democratic system is toothless, between elections (and the Government has plans to fix those).
I received my council tax bill today. As always, it is impenetrable. In terms of transparency, clarity and accountability, it rivals the political and legal structure of the late medieval Holy Roman Empire.
It’s headed ‘Oxford City Council’ and says I must them pay £2599.99. Except hardly any of it is for them. Most of it is for the County Council; for some reason, this as shown as 2 separate amounts. The larger amount is footnoted ‘The council tax attributed to Oxfordshire County Council includes a precept to fund adult social care, visit www.oxford.gov.uk/counciltax. No, Won’t. Shan’t. Just explain right here and now, in English (how many people know what a ‘precept’ is – sounds like something out of Trollope.) Likewise, there are two amounts for the City Council, one marked ‘special expenses. Councillors’ sauna? I think we should be told. But we aren’t. And some is for ‘PCC for Thames Valley’. Probably most people can guess the missing word here is ‘Police’. But why not just say so? (Or what a PCC is. My wife, not unreasonably, thought it must be the parish council.)
Inside is a note explaining that the amount I’m required to pay is based on the value of my house. Using values dating from 1991. That might as well be contemporary with the Holy Roman Empire.
Inside also are leaflets from the County Council and PCC explaining how they spend the money: The City doesn’t think I need bother myself with that, though there is a nice leaflet about waste disposal, a subject that interests me hugely. I too would like to see less waste.
The County Council explain that they spend £828.9m ‘excluding schools (£663.7m)”. It does not explain why schools are excluded, and later on tells me that, despite having excluded schools, they do actually spend £192.4m on ‘maintained schools’, leaving the average reader in the dark about where money comes from whom schools and who spends what on which schools. (They also tell me that they too spend money on waste, as well as the City. Isn’t that duplication…wasteful?)
As to Business Rates – how they are set, how they are divvied up, locally and nationally…a mystery within a mystery, for advanced students only (and anyway it changes every year or so). Yet it is something that has a powerful influence on councils’ thinking about development.
The most opaque leaflet is by the Police and Crime Commissioner who cover two counties besides Oxfordshire. It’s entirely unclear who takes what decisions. He says the Government have set ‘the police grant’ and told him what he should raise locally which he then did. So, who actually decided the budget? Income is shown as coming from, amongst other things ‘CLG Formula Grant’. One day, maybe, we’ll welcome out the shadows the group known only as ‘CLG’. One of the oddest things in the leaflet is that it’s unclear whether it’s the CPP or TVP talking. ” The police funding settlement enables us to invest to expand our capabilities…” One has the sense that the PCC and TVP are really one outfit. Well, that wasn’t the idea.
But don’t worry, it’s all democratic. The PCC asked …well, he asked some people and 2,814 of them, said yes, increase the precept. As the Government told you to do. Of course, that leaves just a million citizens not having any say. Democracy, the Tory way.
hope that’s all clear. Because that believe it or not is the bit that’s above the water. Below are the murky depths. To an extent that is staggering, in recent years we have seen huge amounts of power and public money and decision making channelled into unelected, sometimes highly secretive bodies, some with councillors on them, some not, some packed with vested interests such as developers and landowners (I am endebted to an excellent analysis by a group of former council staff who campaign for great transparency and clarity in local government finance, here)
Some of these bodies ‘consult’ in random and often obviously inadequate ways, some never do. They don’t publish their papers or their minutes. You can’t meet them and talk to them, other than through councillors who may not themselves have any access. Yet (or maybe ‘therefore’) Government increasingly prefers to work through them. And increasingly huge planning decisions and huge amounts of money are the province of these groups, not the elected local authorities. And decisions made by these bodies tightly shape and constrain decisions taken by Councils on their own spending.
Then we have the current vogue for bidding funds, where Government hands out money for certain specific purposes, Council’s bid for them, and most of the money goes to Tory-run councils. Another American institution imported by our mini-Trump: ‘pork barrel politics’.
A true and uptodate picture of what public money is being spent by whom in Oxfordshire would be fascinating. But it doesn’t exist.
What is so odd about the complete lack of interest by these councils in explaining anything of this to those who pay them and who consume their services, is that they have a tremendously important story to tell, and one which won’t be told by anyone else. Such as. Since 2010, central Government has cut funding for local authorities far more deeply than its own spending. Central Government has handed responsibilities to local government but without adequate funding for them. Central Government can spend whatever it likes and just borrow, local government cannot borrow and is very tightly restricted in its ability to increase taxation. Due to COVID, local government revenues have slumped, yet demand for services has soared.
You might think that local authorities would be desperate to convey this story to residents. Not a bit of it. I’ve never seen any effort to do so from either County or City Council. It is an extraordinary own goal.
Does any of this matter? Don’t normal people just open their tax bill, grumble a bit and then pay up? Who cares what it’s for, and who spends it?
I passionately believe it does matter. In fact, it matters today more than ever. Because confidence and trust in authority is lower than ever. Because we are at the start of an economic and fiscal crisis unprecedented in many generations. Because the gap between what people would like to see in terms of local services and what can be afforded is enormous, and growing.
If we don’t give ordinary people basic information about how the financing of local government works, the pressures on it, what is being funded and what has to be left out, we open the way to disinformation, alienation, rumour, misunderstanding – which I see every time I look at the comments on the Oxford Mail website. We are creating the conditions for a breakdown in civic society.
Now I suspect that if I took councillors or council officers to task for their quite extraordinary failure to explain their finances publicly, they’d say: oh, it’s so complicated, you can’t expect the average citizen to understand.
I utterly disagree - on the basis of a career in public finance myself. Failure to explain, to someone who’d like to understand, is ALWAYS, ALWAYS the failure of the explainer, a failure of their understanding of their duty ss officials, a failure of their understanding of communication, of language itself. It IS possible. It’s just in the self-absorption way of authority, everywhere, that it just can’t be bothered.
As proof of that I offer two observations, one about councillors, the other about myself:
This budget does not really look far ahead and indeed, given COVID and Brexit, it is hard to do so. But the figures suggest a lot pain ahead for public services.
Certainly for MoJ, remarkably given only a single sentence in the Red Book, and no increase in underlying funding at all in 2021-22 (ie excluding temporary COVID-related funding for Nightingale Courts etc). Given the parlous state of legal aid, the enormous backlog of court cases (now being listed for hearing in 2023!), the continuing crisis in prisons (rates of self harm and assaults on harm still around twice what they were pre austerity, and a surge in numbers inevitable as the backlog of cases is tackled, never mind Johnson's plans for increasing the prison population), there seems little scope for repairing the damage done to every part of the justice system since 2010. Meanwhile MoJ makes the most of doling out penny packets for this or that specialised need.
For a Department which for years has been quite unable to live within its means, it's a poor outlook.
And yet, with different policies, this is the one department which could do more with less, if we were prepared to acknowledge the pointlessness of our addiction to ever-increasing incarceration.
Every prison reformer knows Bastoy. It’s a model prison in Norway, a short way from Oslo. It has just over 100 prisoners. It’s on an island in a lake. The prisoners live in cottages without locked doors and work on the farm. In their free time, they ride horses, cross country ski, play tennis, enjoy a sauna. They have a chef to cook for them. The staff: prisoner ratio is 1:2. And the reoffending rate is just 16%, compared to the European average of 76%. Or so we are told by an unending series of pilgrims to Bastoy (1). For it is the Holy Grail, the Promised Land, the Mecca of every prison reformer.
Really? No. Of course not. Once you stop to think. And consider that:
So, statements about how much better Bastoy is at reducing reoffending than prisons in this country, or across Europe, are quite simply, meaningless. No-one who knows anything about the subject should even think of making such a comparison.
Wouldn't you like to live here?
But there are other reasons, too, why we should stop wittering on about Bastoy.
We know perfectly well, thank you, what is so wrong with our prisons and what to do about it, on the basis of real, grown up, research.
We know that prisoners are less likely to reoffending if when released they have somewhere to live and employment or training when they leave prisons and money to sustain them through their first days at liberty. And we know that many don’t (4).
We know that prisons are likely to have lower reoffending rates if the prisoners in them feel safe (5). We know that they often don’t feel safe, because violence and self-harm in our prisons have doubled since 2010 (6).
We know that the in 2010, our prisons were in the best state they’d been in for generations. And we know – or all of us who aren’t Tory Ministers, or their PR people, know – what was he main cause of its descent into violent chaos by the mid-2010s. It was because Tory Ministers made swinging cuts – removing one third of front-line prison officers while not reducing prisoner numbers at all, in the process losing a lot of older, more experienced staff and middle managers (see analysis and graph here). We know that by cutting prison officer pay, the Tories made the very challenging job of a prison officer much less attractive than other jobs paying the same which are much less challenging, leading to dangerously high staff turnover and difficulty in recruitment. We also know that reducing reoffending became at the make time more diffiuclt because the Tories botched a sell off of the probation service so badly that the whole lot had eventually to be renationalised.
We know what we need to do now to try to improve matters. And it’s not about model farms on lakes. Nope.
It would require us to:
Still, on balance it is no more difficult than finding 800 model farms on 800 islands in 800 lakes, with horses, saunas, tennis courts, ski runs and a constant procession of gullible, ill informed, self-indulgent journalists.
Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research: “Reducing reoffending: review of selected countries” 2012: “comparison of reoffending rates are not possible…such comparison would require thorough investigation to control for the many differences in defintions, reportinrg practices, enforcement cultures and pltical systems”
“A Systematic Review of Criminal Recidivism Rates Worldwide: Current Difficulties and Recommendations for Best Practice” S Fazel A Wolf. Plos One, 15.6.18 see https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0130390. “Sample selection and definitions of recidivism varied widely, and few countries were comparable. Conclusions. Recidivism data are currently not valid for international comparisons.”
4) 1 in 7 prisoners is homeless on release. Only 1 in 5 got a job on release which they held for 6 months or more. Prison Reform Trust Bromley Briefings Summer 2019
5) ”Exploring the Relationship between Prison Social Climate and Reoffending”
Katherine M. Auty & Alison Liebling. Justice Quarterly Volume 37, 2020 - Issue 2
"All I know is we got 5,000 niggers in this county who ain't registered to vote. And so far as I'm concerned, they never will be."
Thus the sherrif, in Alan Parker's great 1988 film, Mississppi Burning, about the FBI investigation into the murder of 3 civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Mississppi, in 1964.
The United States, as we have recently been reminded, is at heart a lawless, brutal, deeply racist country, where voter suppression is a hallowed tradition and has taken many forms, from gerrymandering, intimidation, removal of voting stations from poor areas, appointment of a Republican to head the US Mail to slow the postal votes before elections, Republican ID laws designed to make it near impossible for poor blacks to register or to vote, and of course, lynching and most recently, a Republican President who phoned election officials and ask them to fake the numbers his way, Republicans who gathered armed round the homes of election officials and sent deaths and rape threats to them and their wives and children, and Republicans egged on by their Republican President who attacked the nation's legislature, kill policemen and hunted down Deomcracts and even dissident Republicans to lynch right there and then, in the centre of the nation's capital, live on TV. Better no democracy than one that occasionally elects the other party.
Of course, we don't do that here. True, every party supports or opposes changes in electoral processes and law that will advantage or disadvantage it. But neither party has ever gone in for voter suppression. Neither party attempt to make registration or voting more difficult. In fact now it's easier to register to vote than it ever has been, in the EU Referendum we signed up people on an IPhone in the street in 2 minutes. In this country, all parties accept that the voters' decision is paramount and if you lose, so be it. We dont try to stop people voting.
Johnson has announced legislation which will stop you voting if you dont have the right ID. Is this because voter fraud is a growing problem in the UK? No: it isn't. And that's official. The Electoral Commmission whose job is it to monitor voter fraud, has this to say:
They add that in 2019, there were 592 complaints of fraud to the police, mostly about local elections. Just 3 resulted in a conviction. Three. In a year.
Clearly, Johnson's legislation is not about fraud. It is about voter suppression. It is intended to make it harder for the most deprived, rootless, vulnerable in our society to have a say in how that society is run, on the assumption that they would tend to favour other parties than the Tories.
It is utterly wrong and disgraceful. But entirely typical of Johnson and what one must call his Post Tory Party, because there isn't anything about it that connects to the great Tory tradition, not least of electoral reform, including the 2nd Refform Act and extension of franchise to women.
The tradition Johnson choses to follow is that of Donald Trump's Republicans. A tradition more alien to this country and to our values and history than anything that ever came out of Brussels.
We love learning from failure, but for some reason, aren't quite as interested in the lessons of success.
Success in offering at least the first part of the COVID vaccination to everyone in the top 4 risk groups, some 15 million people, by mid February is a major step forward and way ahead of any other country of similar size, or larger. It owes it's success to a mix of political leadership, intelligent (for a change) government procurement, excellent scientific advice, a venture capitalist parachuted in to head the programme, wicked old for-profit Big Pharma and that old fashioned public sector public service, the NHS. A big disappointment therefore to ideologues of both Left or Right.
What was NOT involved was private sector delivery of heathcare, which has so often turned into disaster - SERCO's failed contracts for primary care in Cornwall and for Braintree Hospital, Circle's failed contract for Hinchinbrook Hospital, so many hospital PFIs that turned out to rip off the taxpayer and hamstring the NHS, and SERCO track and trace, though to be sure, that is a complex story, with the public's non compliance a major factor. All the more incomprehensible that the Govt want to press on with privatisation of healthcare services, the triumph of blind ideology over experience.
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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