The other day, someone contacted me about my book – yes, it still happens, every third blue moon – and I thought to have a look again at the latest performance ratings for prisons, for 2018-19, published nearly a year ago. Remember, back when COVID was just a misprint for ‘Corvid’?
When I was the Director responsible for Government research and statistics dealing with correctional services, the statisticians were people of complete integrity. They might make mistakes, sometimes, but you couldn’t get them to play politics, indeed publications were sometimes held up for months because Ministers wanted them to say things that the scientists said were misleading.
Nowadays, for the MoJ, spin is all. The bulletin for the 2018-19 ratings is so very proud at the progress being made. “13% of prisons were rated as having exceptional performance, the highest rate since 2014-2015”. And “more prisons were rated as having acceptable or exceptional performance than in 2017-18 or in 2016-17” and “there were fewer prisons where performance was rated as of concern or of serious concern”.
Slight problem: the same bulletin says such comparisons are rubbish. It says in the small print that because a new rating system was introduced in 2018-19, “comparisons cannot be made to performance rating s from 2017-18” (since they were derived from a different system) or with ratings before 2017-18 since those were based on a yet another different, earlier, system. Clear enough! One of the banes of Government stats is that these breaks in series occur all the time, yet what people often most want is to see a trend. Happens all the time with accounts, too.
Yet the authors of the bulletin immediately break their own rules!
I think I’ll ask the UK Statistical Authority to offer MoJ some help in understanding their own bulletins.
What is even more dubious is the choice of 2014-15 as the benchmarking year. Why that particular year? Why not an earlier year? Because any earlier year would remind us that the prison (and for that matter, probation) services were in a good state in 2010 – when the Tories came in. Why not benchmark on 2010-11, when not one single prison was rated as having performance causing serious concern. Not. A. Single. One. Compared to nearly 1 in 7 prisons last year. (Since MoJ ignores its own rules on past comparisons, why shouldn’t I?). Even more damning, in 2010-11 nearly every prison in the country, an astonishing 98%, were rated as either ‘exceptional ‘or meeting the majority of targets. In 2017-18, before the figures were conveniently ‘improved’ in 2018-19 by introducing yet another a new system, half of all prisons were failing.
MoJ play the same game with staffing numbers, comparing todays’ numbers with the year numbers were lowest and announcing the result as a triumphant x% increase. But the true baseline in 2010, before the Tory cuts started. Which would show that in our prisons, today, we have 16% fewer front line staff on our landings than we had in 2010. Which, in the opinion of everyone except Tory Ministers, and their stooges in the MoJ, is the reason the prison service has been brought so low, that foreign courts bar transfer of prisoners to the UK on humanitarian grounds. In the same way a slight fall in stats such as assaults or self-harm are trumpeted, ignoring the fact that they are nevertheless still over twice as high as when the Tories came in.
The MoJ hope we are too stupid, too lazy, to realise the extent of the damage Tory policies have done not just to prisons and probation, but to every single element of our justice system since they came to power in 2010. Well: I’m not. Nor, I hope, are you.
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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