Napoleon famously described the British as 'a nation of shopkeepers' - a people preoccupied with trade and prosperity, distrustful of great ideas and causes, common-sensical, who would always find a practical solutions to complex problems. No more. A recent YouGov poll on attitudes to Brexit reveals a new Britain.
By large majorities, people think that both Labour and the Tories are badly divided, that neither party has a clear policy on Brexit, and oppose May's plan on Brexit (even though one third of them say they aren't following that story!).
A majority actually now think voting to Brexit was a mistake (46/41%) - a bigger majority than propelled us into Brexit to start with.
That does not mean we want a soft Brexit, though. Far from it. More think May's plan is too soft (40%) than think it too soft (12%), though a third just don't know. Three times as many think 'no deal is better than a bad deal' than vice versa. Despite huge unhappiness with the Government's approach, there is a majority against having another vote on whether to accept the deal or not.
The most important Brexit issue is seen as control of immigration (28%) followed by not having to follow EU rules and not paying a sub (20% each). Tariff free trade is seen as less important (16%) and the ability of the City to continue to trade in Europe hardly figures.
A You Gov poll last year told an even more extraordinary story: that a large majority of Brexit voters are quite happy that significant economic harm to this country should be the price for Brexit. Though they think that, somehow, this won't or shouldn't happen to them or their family.
So, a nation where a majority think Brexit was a mistake - but nevertheless want the hardest possible Brexit, are happy that it should cause serious economic harm to everyone except themselves, and don't care much about trade with Europe or the future of the City, so long as we keep foreigners out. Above all, although not at all liking what is planned for them, they don't want any further say.
A nation of self-harmers, plodding towards that precipice with grim determination.
Note: I recognise that I do the Scot and Irish an injustice: they voted Remain by a large margin. It's the English and Welsh who are desperate to commit suicide.
It is, unbelievably, 5 years since the then Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling, told a shocked House of Commons that he was referring to the Serious Fraud Office the conduct of G4S and SERCO in billing government for £200m of work (on electronic motioning of offenders) which they did not do.
And we are still waiting – the best part of 2,000 days later – for a decision by the SFO on whether to prosecute.
“Justice delayed is justice denied' is an ancient maxim.
This delay is outrageous.
First, the public interest is not being served. For five years, we have not known whether or not two companies whose contracts cover a massive range of public services, and to whom billions of public money are paid each year, are to be charged with criminally defrauding the public purse. And meanwhile, they get further contracts.
Second, it is oppressive. There must be people at the centre of this who have been under investigation, under threat of prosecution, for five full years – with all the consequences of that in terms of stress, difficulty in getting employment and so on. Not just them, but their families.
Third, it threatens to defeat the interests of justice. At some point, delay of many years must affect the chances of a successful prosecution, if such is the outcome – memories fade of key events and discussions, and at this rate, witnesses may well die of old age before the SFO wakes from its slumbers.
The delay is unfathomable. The case lacks every dimension of complexity one can think of – multiple victims (only one); multiple jurisdictions (only |England and Wales); multiple contracts (two); intricate company structures (two); miscreants on the run (none known). In fact, the one victim, the Ministry of Justice, stated publicly that it had no information to show dishonesty on the part of either company.
So how can it possibly take 5 years, not to complete a trial, not even to start a trial , but to merely decide whether or not to hold a trial?
Perhaps savage cuts in the SFOs budget are to blame? Hardly: its Resource DEL last year was slightly above that for 2010-11.
It seems simply that the SFO doesn't think 5 years is a long time. [20/7: just received a FoI response which says, incredibly, that nearly one third of current SFO inquiries have been on the go more than five years. What do they do there?]
SERCO and G4S were the scandal. Now, the scandal is the SFO.
Anyone hoping that the Justice Committee's questioning of Rory Stewart, prisons minister, and MoJ officials on 26 June would give a clearer picture of the Department's finances was emphatically disappointed (1). The event illustrated the limitations of the Commons Committee system, in which each of a dozen or so MPs is in turn given the chance to ask 'their' list of questions. When the answer is unclear or evasive, the questioning often moves on without the issue being resolved. Particular so, when complex financial matters are discussed (2). The effect is like watching a confused battle at night, where the occasional flash briefly illuminates something - but you are not quite sure what – or how it connects to the rest of the battlefield.
In my analysis of 14 May, I described MoJ's finances as out of control, bursting the settlement agreed in SR 2015 in many directions simultaneously, by, I estimated, as much as a billion a year.
Here's what we learned from this hearing - or didn't [my comments in italics]:
Questions posed by the Committee which the MoJ could not or did not answer:
Confusion still reigns. However there is nothing here to suggest that my analysis of 14 May wasn't broadly right.
If I were advising the Committee. I'd say: don't take more oral evidence until MoJ have supplied a table showing:
a) the provision agreed in SR 15 and the main assumptions used, including prison population;
b) revised provision showing what increases agreed since the SR were for, including changed assumptions, and how funded;
c) what MoJ now thinks it needs next year and to, say, 22-23, separating capital and revenue, and the population assumptions it is using;
d) the revised building and closure programme, showing when new prisons will start and when become operational, how much capacity they will provide, and when existing prisons will close, the capacity lost through closure
e) to match d), all costs of the programme including building, fitting out and staffing and opening new prisons, estimated capital receipts from closure, transitional revenue costs of closure e.g. redundancy and of opening e.g. training, showing extent of double running (old capacity still operating while new is still not fully operational).
When the Committee has that, it could have a useful further oral examination. Trouble is, I doubt MoJ know half these things.
A final curiosity. The CFO told the Committee not once, but three times, that MoJ has a 'very strong system of financial management'. Now, believe it or not, I am very sympathetic to the position finance officials in MoJ and elsewhere in Government find themselves in. It is a far more challenging job than the one I had as FD of the HMPS around 2000, and to know that you are spending your working life systematically degrading vital public services, while publicly supporting minsters' pretence that funding is adequate to maintain services, must be hellish.
Still, when one considers that on their own admission, the last SR was disastrously mishandled, that on their own admission, maintenance contracts collapsed because MoJ didn't understand its own costs, resulting in additional spending, that MoJ as been forced to partially reverse deeply damaging cuts in prison staffing and hence exceed again the SR 2015 settlement, that probation contracts have become sustainable because MoJ didn't understand volume risk and this too may exceed the settlement provision, that MoJ's massive building programme has utterly failed, that MoJ cocked up increases in fees , that the court modernisation programme is costing more than budgeted but say the NAO may realise fewer savings than planned, that MoJ is so far adrift financially that its PUSS has had to tell Parliament he cant yet set a proper budget for the current year – when you consider all those things, then if I were the CFO, I would not go around telling Commons Committees that the MoJ has 'very strong financial management systems'.
(2) I made the same point in my book, regarding the PAC's failure to spot the MoJ's role in the SERCO/G$S tagging scandal (page 74)
Last week the Justice Committee took evidence about the state of prisons, and plans for prisons, from the prisons minister, Rory Stewart, and a number of his officials - Mike Driver, CFO of the MoJ and Justin Russell, head of ORC (Offender Reform and Commissioning).
Very visibly and curiously absent was one person – the actual head of the Prison Service, Mike Spurr. He was referred to once or twice but no-one explained why he wasn't there, as he and all his predecessors have been on such occasions in the past. So none of the people present works, or ever has worked, in a prison, or managed prisons: yet the sessions was about the work of prisons and what is happening in them.
Though - another oddity – it is increasingly difficult to distinguish Stewart's role from Spurr's: Stewart often talks as though he is the one running prisons, with absolutely no sense of the difference in role between being minister and actually managing the Service (odd reversal of Michael Howard's insistence that he was only responsible for 'policy', never 'operations'). Which makes plausible the rumour that Stewart, bizarrely, is so utterly smitten with prisons that he wants to move over to head the Service, believing that he is the man to save it.
I think I have seen this movie before. Spurr is being held locked in a room in a high tower within Queen Anne's Gate, being interrogated night and day until he signs the confession that he personally sabotaged the Spending Review settlement by moving all the decimal points around at random (which would explain a lot, come to think of it). Stewart keeps trying on his new uniform as Director General of HMPPS in front of a large mirror and ordering extra gold trim here and there, occasionally snarling at his toadying ORCs, 'Hasn't he signed yet?'. Meanwhile Spurr's loyal staff are arrested one by one or re-posted to Dartmoor or loaned to the Bulgarian prison service. But one loyal secretary has found out where Spurr is being held and is as this moment inching along the window ledge, high above Petty France, towards Spur's cell, a mobile phone clenched in her teeth, the phone number of the Clerk of the Justice Committee already on rapid dial...
TO BE CONTINUED
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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