Robert Buckland is going to build another 4 prisons. Unfortunately, he has forgotten quite why.
A degree of amnesia is perhaps understandable. A succession of Tory Ministers has been announcing plans to build 10, 000 new prison places for such a long time, it’s almost become a ritual divorced from reality, like Harvest Supper.
Let’s help restore that memory!
Nearly 5 years ago, Michael Gove announced plans to build 10, 000 new places in 9 new prisons. That would have allowed old prisons with poor conditions and facilities, and high running costs, to be closed, demolished and those sites used to build 3, 000 new homes, the sale receipts partly paying for the prisons. In the process, the estate would be configured to better match demand and supply. New gizmos would make new prisons whizzier. It really was a most cunning plan. A few months later, his successor, Liz Truss, confirmed the plans, promising 5 new prisons would be open by 2020. That is to say, today. The number actually open today is…none. Just two are being built. They will open in 2021.
Why did the plan fail so spectacularly? After all, in my day we built and opened new prisons within 40 months of going to tender. Though we were never quite so stupid as to plan to open 5 prisons in one year, knowing how difficult it is to open a new prison (none more so than the last publicly built and run prison, Berwyn, which remained troubled and half empty for years after opening). But back then, HMPS was headed by people who knew all about prisons, as opposed Jo Farrar, who knows all about running Bath Council, and prison building was handled by HMPS itself, not the incompetents who inhabit the centre of MoJ nowadays.
The reason for the failure was MoJ’s almost unbelievable incompetence. As the NAO helpfully documents (they’ll have to go, won’t they, Dominic?), two full years was spent shuffling paper back and forth between MoJ and Treasury. MoJ’s disastrous loss of financial control (see here) meant that capital had to be switched into current to plug the £1bn deficit in the budget. MoJ therefore had to look to private finance, not because it was better value, but because the cost could be spread over 25 years (prisons on the never-never). But (as I explained in my book!) PFI was never going to look as good as it had in the ‘90s, now that the public sector had got much improved its ability to build faster and cheaper, while the cost of public borrowing had plummeted. So HMT rejected their proposal. And then pulled the rug out from under MoJ by abolishing private finance altogether. So, back to the drawing board….
Last August, Buckland, Truss’s successor but two (do keep up!) announced (again) a programme to build 10,000 new prison places. No, not those 10,000. Another quite new 10,000. No dates promised this time – someone had learnt a lesson, indeed they only have one site as yet. And the reason for building them had changed. Not to close intolerably inefficient and unsuitable old prisons – what an idea! But to accommodate Johnson’s plan to lock prisoners up for longer. Although no estimate of how many places would be needed has ever been produced.
The latest announcement is still with the 10,000 figure: but the rationale has largely disappeared. It’s not to relieve overcrowding (surely no-one would build prisons just for that remnant of liberal hand-wringing! Overcrowding is nothing to worry about, bar the occasional lethal pandemic, of course), not to close old prisons, not to accommodate Johnson’s extravaganza – which is no longer so much as mentioned. (Why not, I wonder? Cummings was so proud of it only last year. Caution stirring in HMT at last?)
The ‘reasons’ now advanced are…well, absurd.
First, to reduce reconvictions. The idea is that shiny new prisons with shiny new gizmos in them (politicians, like children, are irresistibly attracted to shiny new gizmos that whirr and buzz) will be ever so much better at preventing reoffending. (Not, however, so much better than we can ever stop building new prisons – oh, dear no). The evidence for this is, well, nil.
In fact, we know perfectly well that this rationale is nonsense:
And it can’t boost local economies quite so much as they boast. Because as Treasury claim, a tad unfortunately, in the same press release, the prisons will in fact be prefabricated and transported to the site to be assembled (“Components, such as concrete walls, and pipework for water and electricity are built by companies around the country using modern, standardised processes and assembled on site.”). So, not locally. (Treasury, in that blissful state of near total ignorance of what Government’ have done previously which characterises Government today, clearly do not know that the first PFI prisons did that a quarter of a century ago. Prefabrication off-site is as exciting an innovation as cardboard.)
The wilful ignorance, serial incompetence and cynicism of the MoJ is unforgivable. Particularly since this programme, like everything else done by Government nowadays, will be paid for by forced borrowing from future generations. Johnson plans to lock up more of the younger generation and for longer, then force them and their children to pay for it. Government Debt, which the Tories made such a fuss about when it was only 80% of GDP, and used to justify destructive cuts in prisons, the police, legal aid, has in recent months reached 100%, a level last seen in the early ‘60s when we were still paying off war debt. And as Johnson builds, and the economy slumps, and millions are unemployed the debt will rise much higher. War debt was finally extinguished only by the rapidly rising growth rates of the late 50s and 60s. Does anyone seriously expect to see such growth again – post COVID, post Brexit, post global warming? This debt may even outlast the prisons we are now building.
This plan disgraces everyone involved.
From latest Inspection report on Berwyn, HMPS' flagship brand new state of the art rehabilitative prison, opened just 3 years ago
"One of the greatest challenges...was the lack of activity places. It is difficult to understand why and how the procurement of work and training places for a new prison could be so delayed...some [places] were of inadequate quality...Even those that were available were not fully used. Many prisoners were unemployed...staff did too little to support a sound work ethic. The prison was struggling to develop its approach to offender management and resettlement.....There had been no assessment of current need.....Too few offending behaviour programmes to meet need." Etc., etc.
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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