Last August, Rory Stewart said he’d resign if, by August 2019, levels of violence and drug abuse in 10 target jails had not fallen. He said that meant a ‘substantial’ reduction, in the order of 10 or 25%. Here are the results after 4 months (August-December 2018), for assaults and, since this is one of the main concerns, and is after all a form of violence, self-harm, in the 10 targets prisons. We won’t be told the figures for drugs till July, at earliest.
They show a fall of 13% for self-harm, and 19% for assaults – in only 4 months. Remarkable progress! Stewart can likely keep his job.
But…. note a few things, if you will. First, there is nothing exceptional about the fall in the 10 target prisons. Here is the change over August for all prisons, compared to the target prisons.
In fact, the fall in assaults is much the same for the target prisons as for all prisons – and for self-harm, all prisons did better than the target prisons. So it seems that what did the job was not Rory Stewart’s personal focus on the 10 prisons, but the result of management action across the whole estate. Now, who was running prisons during that time….name slips my mind. Whoever it was, he did a good job.
(Although another explanation – one too seldom considered, nowadays, when every tiny change is considered the fault of achievement of those in power – is just that all trends come to an end. It may be that drug consumption for example has reached its natural limits because prisoners simply couldn’t take any more drugs. Or because of the same arcane changes in society that created the problem in the first place.)
The second thing follows from the first. Experienced staff, and £10m, were diverted from other prisons to the 10 targets prisons, robbing Peter to pay Paul. Yet the rest of the prison service, deprived of those resources, actually did slightly better than the prisons to which resources were diverted. Raising the question of whether that diversion was more than a political ploy.
The third thing follows from the second. What, then, can have changed in late 2018 that might account for falling assault and self-harm, across the whole estate? Well, just possibly the same thing which, in the opinion of everyone except Ministers, created the problem in the first place - staffing levels. In 2018, staff numbers picked up again, as the Grayling cuts were partially reversed. In other words, maybe this isn’t so much the triumph of Rory Stewart, as further evidence that the appalling collapse of safety and decency in prisons since 2011 is the work of Tory Ministers.
The fourth thing follows from the third. It is, simply, this horrendous graph.
Seen in this light, Rory Stewarts’ ‘achievement’ is to stabilise the system, so that prisons are now ‘only’ twice as violent as when the Tories came in. Not much of a boast, one would think, for a Tory minister to make.
The fifth thing follows from the fourth. Rory Stewart presents himself as a man of integrity. But he avoids ever saying what he believes caused the deterioration of safety in prisons, and specifically, whether the Grayling cuts are to blame, yes or no. At any rate, I haven’t found a clear statement from him on the matter. And of course, he can’t say that the staffing cuts are to blame, because he would be blaming a senior colleague, and because he’ll never get Treasury to fund MoJ to restore staff staffing levels. Likewise, he has said that the system can’t be run properly without cutting the courts’ use of custody, but he and Gauke have avoided doing anything about it. Finally, I note again the nauseating deceit of presenting the partial reversal of the Grayling cuts as a staff increase. Likewise it takes some nerve to trumpet a reduction in violence, when what the rest of us see is an appalling increase.
So while this is undoubtedly good news, I will hold off the champagne for the time being.
We're all aware of funding pressure on public services - prisons, probation, courts, legal aid, NHS, social care, schools, universities, roads, defence, you name it - none of them now able to offer acceptable services. The bill to restore something like what we used to think acceptable, maybe £100bn a year? Here, to make you really depressed, is the long term picture: the trend line shows the very slow but seemingly unstoppable decline of the rate of growth in the UK economy over 60 years. And that's before taking account of the post Brexit slow down, the ageing population, climate change....No, I dont know what to do about it either, except to say, the future has to be different. We don't know yet how different.
The refusal to see this is one of the reasons I am not a enthusast for Corbynism. The great Aneurin Bevan famously declared that "the language of priorities is the religion of socialism" (though the great Peter Simple pointed out that you can change the order of the nouns any way you like and it still sounds profound). Corbyn and Co, with their assumption that everything can be afforded if we just chuck out the Tories and switch the printing preses to over-drive, clearly do not know that language.
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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