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.
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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