The removal of Michael Spurr as head of HM Prison and Probation Service today gives one to think about what it means nowadays to head up any of our public services.
I worked with Michael when I was FD of the Prison Service, though not closely – he is a deal younger than me and was then I think still an Area Manager. I do not know him personally at all well. Yet directly, and indirectly through those who have been closer to him, I know him to be an outstanding manager, of a kind that the great British public, our media, our politicians whether Left or Right, neither understand, nor are properly grateful for. (The one exception, curiously, was Jack Straw who, whatever his other faults, did know when he was well served, and did not interpose the bodies of his servants between himself and enemy fire.)
Spurr is a man of great integrity, utterly dedicated to his chosen profession and with a deep moral and, I suspect, specifically Christian understanding of its importance – an insider told me that while he shrugged off the machinations of his own MoJ colleagues against him, the one time they saw him really low was after the grisly suicide of a young prisoner. He is utterly without what used to be called 'side' - which in a world of spite, panic and malice (good name for a firm of PR consultants?) could make him seem naive, and a ready victim for less ethically burdened civil servants and politicians.
His removal – the exact term I believe, for Spurr has rejected the kind invitation to shoot himself from the Permanent Secretary, Richard Heaton, the man at the top for the MoJ, who himself seems to carry personal accountability for nothing whatsoever, despite having presided for years over the utter degradation of our entire system of justice in this country (sometime, I must write about Permanent Secretaries, those parasitic growths on the body politic – do you know, in the past 70 years, not one in any area of Government has ever been sacked, while in the past 25, we have seen two heads of the Prison Service dismissed, the Worshipful Guild of Permanent Secretaries looking after its own, always), and instead to has chosen to await either redeployment or a real sacking, much as his predecessor Derek Lewis famously declined to step down when invited to do so in 1994 – his removal, I was saying, is desperately unfair. For once, Lord Falconer has it right:
“Michael Spurr is a terrific impressive decent public servant who has given his working life to prison and probation, and has been dealt as shitty a hand by the government as it is possible to deal “.
It was to, be sure, not Spurr's brilliant idea to cut staffing by a quarter while allowing prisoner numbers to increase, nor his idea to tear the probation service to shreds and half privatise it in a tearing hurry, on no evidence at all and with no escape route should the change prove disastrous, as it has. The people who deserve the blame for destroying these services are: Grayling, Gove, Truss, Gauke and Stewart. (I leave out Lidington because he was only there for 15 minutes). (A correspondent says I am too severe on Stewart, who he says has good intentions: but when people are dying and lives are being destroyed because of irresponsible cuts and botched privatisation, I am not in the least impressed by intentions, if fine words are not backed by more money, more staff, reduced demand for prison places and re-nationalisation. Not to mention an apology, damn them!)
I am sure that Spurr warned Minsters very explicitly of the risks they were running, and serialisation of his advice and minsters responses would make a good read: would it not, Messrs Grayling and Co (not to mention the strikingly pointless Heaton)? So I foresee his being paid rather a lot of depart quietly, backed naturally by a gagging clause to avoid any unpleasantness for his masters.
And yet. When Spurr began in post, both services were in as good a shape as anyone could recall in living memory; today both are in scandalous disrepair. Can the great British public, with its insatiable demand for heads of poles, really be blamed for assuming that the leader of the services must have some part in their dismal decline? After all - it all happened on his watch (one of his mistakes was to stay too long - and his luck eventually did run out).
And Spurr's case does illustrate the dilemma of any decent, able public servant in an era of austerity. What is one to do, after all, when the Minister tells you that come what may, budgets must be cut by 25%? You protest, you warn, you argue, you are overruled. Then what? You can resign, of course. Some might blame Spurr for not doing so then, and think him weak and venal for not choosing that way out. But if this is what you have given your life to this work, if you believe that if you go, much worse will follow, that there isn't yet anyone remotely ready to succeed you, that you alone have the capacity to make this risky change happen in the least damaging way, that your colleagues are desperately looking to you to see them through unparalleled dangers, then quitting might well seem unthinkable cowardice.
But if you stay, then what? The terrible truth is that you yourself must become the instrument of the policies you so opposed. You must devise the detailed plan to make it all happen, and you must persuade colleagues, and unions, that it will work, and that they must cooperate with it. And that is what Spurr did. And of course, his enormous skill in management and his reputation and standing amongst prison governors, and prison pressure groups, made it easier to do. It was Spurr who persuaded colleagues and unions that the service could run safely with much lower staffing levels and much lower starting pay, and that yes, the fragmentation and selling off of probation really could be done, and to an absurd timetable. And the fact is that he did these things superbly well – the Service when I was there could never have managed doing so many radical changes, so quickly, so well. It was a tour de force of management, though whether it was the right change is, as I said at the time, another matter entirely.
For that is what leadership means. You cannot stand there and say, Minsters demand that you do this, I advised against and frankly wash my hands of it, but you must go ahead nevertheless. That would be a truly reprehensible abdication – taking the money but not dong the job. As though a WW1 General were to say to his captains, walking into German machine guns under massive bombardment is obviously suicidal, you'll all be killed - but off you go! You have to say, this time we've got ever so many more big guns, we've finally timed the bombardment right, this time we'll smash their defences first, you'll punch right through them and might end the War, go to it! And if you have integrity, you can only say it if you to some extent believe it.
So I conclude, with the greatest reluctance – because I have some measure of the moral nature of this man – that someone in Spurr's position cannot, in fact, avoid contamination by the policies he was obliged to implement. And I would be surprised is that is not one of the burdens he now feels most acutely. For men like that do not need Daily Mail attack dogs to remind them of their failings: their own conscience stands fiercest in judgement.
And so I think it must be for anyone at the top of public services systemically degraded by austerity – chief executives of hospitals faced with impossible 'efficiency' targets, police chiefs with too few officers to attend to 999 calls, army chiefs who know equipment is steadily falling below the standards of a modern army, school heads forced to rely more and more on untrained 'assistants'. And of course - this is sadly not yet understood – it applies equally to leaders in outsourced services. Directors of SERCO, G4S or Sodexo prisons who also have to deal with rising numbers of drug intoxicated prisoners with too few staff on too little pay and Minsters and media in scapegoating mode. And one wonders, why anyone of real capacity and worth would wish to to lead our public services in such a climate? Where to implement austerity means to be personally implicated in it. And then to be blamed for the consequences.
One can imagine this done with integrity. That is to say, neither the Tory refusal to acknowledge that deep cuts mean poor services, nor the Labour pretence that everything can be made affordable by pushing the printing presses into overdrive and massively increasing the tax take from the private sector- just as we tilt into Brexit-inspired recession. Imagine, instead, a reasoned, just assessment that such and such are the priority groups, and this standard is the best that we can with limited means realistically hope to do for them, more we cannot, however much we want to, and awful though it may be to accept that. In the prison service, it would take a different form – acceptance of a reduction in crazy levels of incareration, knowing that only with fewer prisoners can prisons be run decently. In such a world, we could be demanding but fair to our public service leaders.
The reason we don't live in such a world is not, ultimately, the politicians or the journalists – it is ourselves. The great British public believes it is entitled to excellent services without paying for them. Until recently, a clear majority opposed any increase in their taxes to save the NHS; one in 3 of us doesn't pay anything into a pension, though we know that life on the state pension is a miserable business; from the Right there is hysterical anger that someone lucky enough to own their home should be asked to contribute some of its value to their care in old age (better it seems that people who don't own their homes, or anything at all, should be forced to pay for them!); someone will bail us out, we assume and if not, watch out. Likewise we want to lock up more and more offenders, but not to pay the bill. The British really like their sour cocktail of unrealistic entitlement, vicious resentment when it is not met, and gloating dispatch of the chosen scapegoats.
Which is where Spurr comes in.
Once a year I take time off from chronicling the remorseless destruction of our public services, and the monstrous act of self harm that is Brexit, to celebrate the art of glass. Today, I introduce one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen - and heard. It has for its subject, and in its making, the very best of England – from a time before 'England' meant bilious resentment of foreigners, incontinent nostalgia, football thuggery and fifth rate Churchill impersonations. This story is the more striking because composed of so many layers – of different people, and different art forms.
Start with Rex Whistler, a minor but then highly fashionable painter between the Wars (how long will that remain meaningful ?– between which wars, the young will soon be asking). He was a 'bright young thing' - knew Evelyn Waugh, Cecil Beaton and so on. He painted the mural you see all around you if you eat in the Tate England Gallery restaurant and another, much better one at Plas Newydd, the seat of the Marquis of Anglesey. He joined the Welsh Guards in the War and was killed soon after landing in Normandy, aged 37.
His death was a terrible blow to his brother Laurence, who had always looked up to him, and rather lived rather in his shadow. Laurence was a glass artist, who is often said to have 'revived' the English art of glass engraving, but nothing of the sort, really – he invented a unique personal style, more like sketching or watercolours. His work is extraordinarily light, both in touch and quality - often a picture is barely outlined, leaving the untouched part of the glass to suggest the rest (1). He was a master of stippling – pictures made of hundreds of tiny indentations on glass, made with exquisite patience, using a tiny diamond tipped pencil (later, he used electric drills, on larger pieces, but hand stippling was his trademark). His pieces are often of the English landscape, and have a very distinctive brooding, numinous, somewhat melancholy quality about them.
In 1985 Laurence created an extraordinary memorial to his brother, in the form of a large glass prism. The prism was of Steuben glass, made by the great manufacturer, Corning, lead glass with a very high refractive index. Whistler engraved it on all three sides, so that while looking at each surface you can also see through to the other sides from 'inside', if you see what I mean. His subject was, again, 'England' – Salisbury cathedral and the house in the Close which Rex had leased. It was then housed in a lantern presented by the Welsh Guards, cast by Richard Cowdy, built by Henry Bowler-Reed and Tony Wallis and later gilded by Richard Healy - more crafts and artists. It is on display in the Cathedral, mounted on a slowly revolving turntable, so constantly changing.
About 10 years ago, the turning prism was videoed by a You Tuber by name of hnmcmurray (who I suspect must be Professor Hamilton McMurray, leader of the Corrosion and Coating Group within the College of Engineering at Swansea University – whoever he is, I and others are so grateful to him).
But there is more. The maker of the video chose extraordinary music to accompany it. It is a setting of an English ballad dated to 1611, but probably much older, 'Three ravens', about the eponymous birds who sit watching the corpse of a fallen knight and debate whether to breakfast off him. Here are the lyrics:
There were three rauens sat on a tree, downe a downe, hay downe, hay downe,
There were three rauens sat on a tree, with a downe,
There were three rauens sat on a tree,
They were as blacke as they might be.
With a downe, derrie, derrie, derrie, downe, downe.
The one of them said to his mate,
Where shall we our breakfast take?
Downe in yonder greene field,
There lies a Knight slain under his shield,
His hounds they lie downe at his feete,
So well they can their Master keepe,
His Hawkes they flie so eagerly,
There's no fowle dare him come nie
Downe there comes a fallow Doe,
As great with yong as she might goe,
She lift up his bloudy head,
And kist his wounds that were so red,
She got him up upon her backe,
And carried him to earthen lake,[pit]
She buried him before the prime,[canonical hour=6 am]
She was dead her self ere euen-song time
God send euery gentleman, Such haukes, such hounds, and such a Leman [mistress].
Then the music: a truly thrilling setting by John Harle, saxophonist, musical educator and most eclectic of modern English composers. And sung by Sarah Leonard, a fine English soprano who specialises in what people call contemporary classical music.
Here it is. I came across it accidentally while googling Laurence Whistler. It shocked me then, with its unearthly beauty, and the richness of layer upon layer of arts and artists. I hope it will shock you, too. NB keep the sound up!
As well as the two Rex Whistler murals I refer to above, there is a fine brooding oil self portrait of him on the day he got his Guards uniform, in the Army Museum in Chelsea (he had a premonition of death in the War - or perhaps a wish - and it shows here) - and by contrast, a delightful fresh, very erotic, nude painting of Lady Caroline Paget, daughter of the Marquis, painted I assume at Plas Nwydd, one summer before the War. Their affair didn't last of course – she married a neighbouring aristo (2). Was there a trace of Rex in Waugh's Ryder at Brideshead?
Among the finest of Laurence Whistler's work is in the Church of St Nicholas, Moreton, Dorset (difficult to find, but there is or was a superb tea room next door of which we were the only customers, and a brook nearby where we saw kingfishers). The church must be unique, mostly it is large windows which have been all left in clear glass for the engraving, so masses of light - and what pictures! (3) One which always impresses : it's of an aerial duel during the Battle of Britain between an English and a German plane. Far below you, you can see the cottage where the Englishman lived. In the far, far distance, across the invisible Channel you can just see the fields of Normandy (where Rex was to die), so like and yet unlike those of of England directly below. The window is dedicated to the English airman who died. The two plans chase each other, smoke and vapour trials tracing a pattern in the sky. I wouldn't have noticed had the guide book not told me, but the pattern they make is....the Christian Chi Rho. It always makes me catch my breath.
Another piece, lighter in mood, is in the Ashmolean here in Oxford. It is a bowl that also revolves slowly on a turntable (an old record player, staff say). It shows a cottage in a wood – the cottage of fire – the cottage ruined and grown over. Unhappily, it turns the 'wrong' way, so the story goes contra-chronistically: ruined cottage, cottage on fire, cottage before fire. Time travel!
(1) Whistler on his art:
"Glass is a good medium for expressing notions of light, because the engraver works exclusively in light, arresting it on the surface -- catching it by scratching -- then using it as paint or as ink, being incapable of adding one shadow to the picture, leaving shadow to pretend to be there when really it is only the dark background (always granted a dark background), as it shows through the places unengraved. Viewed against a uniform pale sky the picture becomes muted or as if erased. The light needs the dark to be articulate. Which may be true of life itself, and the meaning of the darkness in it, granted one is open to a meaning. Positive and negative are in perpetual necessary balance; but the positive is light, and only light.
"This paradox and this elusiveness are in the nature of clear glass, considered as a minor graphic medium. The engraved image hangs insubstantial and precarious, uncertainly suspended, as it seems, on nothing."
(2) A marriage of convenience, as both were mainly gay. Her husband used to play pranks by unexpected visits to friends dressed as Queen Mary, until one day he called thus - and the real Queen Mary was already there. I'd pay good money to have seen that.
(3) All the windows had been blown out by a bomb in 1940 - dark Victorian glass which Whistler describes as 'not much regretted'.
(4) Maud Russell, last of Rex's patrons, noted on the day she heard of his death: "“During dinner Eddy told me Rex had been killed in Normandy. I felt a great pang; but I knew he would be killed. Everybody knew it. Lovely Rex; difficult, strange, rare, unhappy Rex.”
When you find your view is the consensus view, in fact no one is taking a contrary view, it's wise now and again just to step outside and do a reality check.
So having just written about the undoubtedly appalling state of Birmingham prison, I decided to sample all 10 of the Inspectorates' reports published this year so far. [Granted, the Inspectorate is not itself infallible. In retrospect, its report last year on Birmingham now looks over-optimistic. But overall, its methodology is principled, evidenced, balanced, and its judgements are objective and trusted.]
I was taken aback by the positive findings for the majority of these 10 prisons. Reports on Wandsworth and Belmarsh were critical – but have a look at these extracts from reports on 6 prisons and YOIs below – including (Guardianistas please note!) two operated by the private sector, one of them G4S.
Some of this might seem a tad generous. Hull. for example, where incidents of self harm are nearly four times what they were at the start of this decade, and assaults nearly three times higher. To say it compares well with other locals just shows how far standards have fallen. Or Oakwood, where assaults have more than doubled in just 3 years. But none of these are 'failing' prisons, either in the Inspectorate's assessment or MoJ's, and some are doing pretty well. And deserve to be recognised as such.
This does not change the overall picture. Violence and self harm across the whole system are double what they were just a few years ago and are still rising, drugs are rife, ), there is gross overcrowding and numbers are still rising, regimes have been brutally curtailed, MoJ itself rates nearly half its prisons as giving cause for concern (compared just to 3% in 2010-11!). But we should recognise that there are still some prisons where staff are doing a decent job in difficult circumstances – and that the worst problems tend to be concentrated in the local prisons, further cause for doubting the efficacy of short sentences.
Note: the Inspectorate's ratings are against four headings: safety, respect, purposeful activity and rehabilitation/release planning. Ratings are: good;reasonably good, not sufficiently good, poor.
HMP Oakwood - mens' Cat C resettlement - G4S
Ratings: safety, rehabilitation: reasonably good; respect, purposeful activity: good
We found Oakwood to be an impressive institution; against all four of our tests of a healthy prison, we judged outcomes to be reasonably good or better. As such, the assessments we made were consistent with a story of steady and sustained improvement after what was a testing start six years ago, and this despite risks represented by the size of the population and inherent risks posed by those held.
Hull - mens' local - public
Ratings: safety, respect, purposeful activity, rehabilitation: all reasonably good
We last inspected in 2014 when we found mixed outcomes reflecting the challenges faced by similar prisons, but Hull was working well in comparison to most other local prisons. At this inspection we found a not too dissimilar picture, with outcomes that we judged to be reasonably good against all four of our tests of a healthy prison. In the context of the challenges faced by the prison system in recent years, this was not an insignificant achievement.
Wetherby YOI – public
Keppel Unit is a specialist unit within Wetherby
Wetherby ratings: safety: not sufficiently good; respect, purposeful activity: reasonably good; rehabilitation, good
Keppel Unit ratings: safety respect, rehabilitation: all good; purposeful activity, reasonably good
….it was reassuring to see the very real progress that had been made at both Wetherby and the Keppel unit. By any standards this was a good inspection, with improved assessments in every healthy prison test at both sites, except for that of safety at Wetherby, which remained ‘not sufficiently good’. I was last at Wetherby two years ago and the positive change in many areas was clear to see. A far more positive attitude permeated the establishment, relationships between staff and boys were generally positive, with many staff showing what seemed to be genuine commitment and indeed, in some cases, a passion for their work.
Dovegate - mens' Cat B Therapeutic prison - SERCO
Ratings: safety, respect: good; purposeful activity, rehabilitation: reasonably good
Dovegate TP was impressive. A national resource, it was part of the offender personality disorder pathway. It worked with men intensively over a period of years to better understand their problematic behaviour, attitudes and thinking patterns and to help them change. Most men who reached the end of the process made progress, and over 80% of respondents in our survey said they felt they had done something at the prison to make it less likely they would reoffend in the future.
Low Newton - women's' resettlement prison and YOI – public
Ratings: safety, rehabilitation: reasonably good; respect, purposeful activity: good
Low Newton remained an excellent women’s prison where leaders and staff understood and managed the complex mix of risks and needs well. Some robust action was being taken to address the use of illicit drugs and associated violence and bullying, and staff were skilled in challenging poor behaviour when it occurred. They also provided excellent care when needed, which many women told us they appreciated. The regime was purposeful, and the generally good resettlement provision supported efforts to rehabilitate the women. We commend the work of the governor and her team at Low Newton,
Werrington - boys' YoI - public
Ratings: safety, purposeful activity: reasonably good; respect, rehabilitation good
We found not only that standards had been maintained, but that in the area of respect they had improved and now merited our highest assessment of ‘good’. By any standards this was a good inspection, and showed what could be achieved in an area of custody that has drawn considerable adverse comment in recent times, not least from this inspectorate. Much of the progress that had been made had come about as the result of good partnership working with other bodies, including in education, health and the voluntary sector. It was also particularly pleasing to note the very positive response to previous inspection recommendations.
In my recent post on probation privatisation (here), I noted that while Gauke claimed the private sector has cut reoffending by 2%, he didn't say how the NPS had done, but that I would ask.
MoJ say they do not in fact know how the NPS compares. The performance of the CRCs is measured against a 2011 baseline. Because the NPS isn't paid by results, no one thought to establish a baseline for their performance. So we don't know, and won't now ever know, whether the public sector did better or worse than the CRCs.
That is pretty odd. Granted, Grayling himself of course did not need that information, because he already 'knew', in his Trumpian way, that the private sector would do better. (Same reason he aborted the payment by results pilots in prisons). He was perhaps wise not to measure the actual performance of the NPS, because reality has an unpleasant habit of biting back at people who just 'know' things.
But I am surprised that officials did not think it worth knowing whether the public or private sector are 'better' at cutting reoffending. After all, the NPS in its present form is a new organisation, dealing with a new and more difficult mix of people: yet MoJ seem to have no interest in knowing whether it is successful. [MoJ point out that the case mix of the NPS and CRCs are very different so the two aren't directly comparable, so the reoffending rate for the NPS offenders would always tend to be higher - true, but I see no reason why you should compare the % reduction in the reconviction rate, if you see what I mean. ]
But I note that that in the 2 years before privatisation, when the only operator was the public sector NPS, there was a drop in reoffending for those given community sentences by 4.3%. So, if you believe that probation's success can be measured by the reoffending rate, the public sector before privatisation did twice as well as the CRCs after privatisation. Tables C1a of the latest 'proven reoffending tables' here. (MoJ will say that's not comparing like with like exactly and that's true, it isn't – but whose fault is that, MoJ? You chose ignorance, so now we have to use whatever data we can.) So the line about CRCs making a difference is nonsense, even in its own terms.
For my own part, for all the reasons set out in my earlier post, I do not believe that changes in the reconviction rate are reliable as a measure of the achievement or failure of the correctional services.
Any more than changes in the overall crime rate (of which reoffending is, of course, just a small part) represent the success of otherwise of the criminal justice system.
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.
Click below to receive regular updates