Pretty, isn't it?
I am hearing concerns from operational people about the design of the planned new place prison at Wellingborough, for which the £250m construction contract was let to Kier in May this year.
The design by Bryden Woods architects does away with the traditional open gallery layout, with the familiar wings of three tiers of galleries radiating out from a central point, from which they are all visible, and with all prisoner movement through that central point. This, says the Guardian in rather gushing piece, is because the traditional design used in dozens of prisons is dehumanising. Instead, there will be a series of separate floors, with cells arranged around courtyards, thus creating “smaller, more social zones, where prison staff might be able to develop better relationships with prisoners through more direct contact and conversation”.
The design is seems to draw on a 2017 study by Matter Architects (here) which was developed from an impressive review of criminological and architectural research. The researchers used a neat tool for exploring the design electronically with staff and prisoners. The study also includes a devastating critique of the design of Berwyn prison, the flagship for public sector design and build post PFI, opened in 2017 but still only three quarters full, but already generally agreed to have been a very expensive disaster (here).
I have sympathy with central point being made, that we invest billions in building vast new public facilities without any real understanding of what it will be like to live in them, partly because I have recently had cause to see from inside some hospitals which also badly fail that test. They included a recently built acute ward where the noisy nurses’ station is just feet from patients, all surfaces reflect noise and where despite being on the 6th floor, most beds don’t much natural light. And a ward where cancer patients (not me!) lie all day having ghastly stuff pumped into their veins, in a building surrounded by trees, where architects have inexplicably started the windows only at 8 feet above the floor, thus no one can see a single tree and the horrible neon lights have to be on all day, even in June – a building barely 10 years old. (Guantanamo should be kept open just for that architect.) Conversely, a low rise cottage hospital where beds are widely spaced, away from but in sight of the nurses’ station, with huge picture windows into a garden.
So I readily agree with the premise that in institutions having total control of and responsibility for people, design can have a huge effect for better or worse.
So why am I sceptical of this study?
First, I don’t see any effort to learn from the many different designs that I have been tried in the past in this country (with the sole exception of Berwyn). All the studies of prisons quoted seem in the Matter paper to be foreign, especially from America. Well, America is not England, especially where prisons are concerned: the whole philosophy and operational style and experience of American prisons is different.
Also, the assessment of design features is solely from the point of view of the psychological well being of prisoners: security, control, the safety of staff and economy are not considered worthy of study. That is absurd, in a prison. There is a long, sad history in the design of English prisons of new, non-traditional designs, focussing on features which might make good sense outside of a prison – courtyards, short spurs, corridors nor galleries – which have been found to contribute to lack of control and safety in report after report. Albany and Holloway spring to mind. No effort has been made to track down and absorb those lessons.
There is, too, a naivety about prisoners. Attractive though a design may be that recalls an IKEA café, there are some rather important differences between prisoners and the average IKEA customer. Then, there is a complete failure to understand that ‘control’ and ‘rehabilitation’ are not mutually exclusive alternatives: on the contrary, they are deeply linked. In a design where staff located centrally cannot see what is going on, the consequences will be that bullying, intimidation, dealing and actual violence will be harder to spot, and to stop. Moreover, staff who find themselves alone on the short spurs beloved of these designers will inevitably respond by spending as little time in those areas as possible, where they will feel vulnerable and cut off, thus handing over control of that space to the strongest prisoners. So much for improved staff prisoner relationships.
In that context it is odd that the researchers appear ignorant of recent research by Alison Liebling which demonstrates that the features of the prison environment most strongly linked to lower conviction rates are not pot plants or nice pastel colours, but whether prisoners feel safe and unthreatened. That is less likely in the sort of fragmented design now proposed.
It is also characteristic of academics to regard cost as a somehow improper consideration, reflecting some ideological obsession of Government. No, it is reality. We live in a country where huge sums are needed to restore the NHS, social care and housing, amongst many other services far more deserving than prisons, to a half way decent standard, and where the economic disaster that is Brexit will be quickly followed by the economic disaster of the break up of the UK, not to mention forecasts of lower growth internationally for the foreseeable future. Despite what politicians promise in this Election, in the real world you cannot just print money without limit.
This is relevant because the operational people I talk to foresee that in order to make the proposed design work at all safely, it will be necessary to considerable increase staffing levels, to ensure there are always staff on every landing while prisoners are in association. I’ve heard that that may increase operating costs by as much as 30 or 40% above a traditional design. Given that the main factor propelling the prison system into its worst crisis in a generation has been tight staffing, this does not seem a clever time to come up with a design which requires much higher staffing levels for the same number of prisoners.
There is a lot of value in the Matter study, which I hope future designers will make use of. But I think the odds are heavily against this particular design proving successful.
A last observation: PFI has rightly got a bad press, and now looks a bizarre way to make major capital investment. However, it had one compelling argument: that the designer and builder was also the operator, and therefore had every incentive to ensure the design was workable. (Interestingly, this was only true of prisons: in PFI hospital and schools, the operator of the core service was the public sector, so the designer and builder had every incentive to cut corners.). We have already seen, at Berwyn, the public sector make a complete shambles of design, with the consequence that the prison is still only half full, years after opening. (A further weakness is that the design and build is now managed within the centre of the MoJ, not by the Prison Service itself: enough of ‘experts’, eh?). At Oakwood, too, I heard the private sector operators weren’t too pleased to find the public sector had designed a prison with key areas without CCTV coverage. It may be that PFI got a few things right, after all.
Labour has just committed to a presumption against short prison sentences and to more funding for community services to reduce use of prison.
They are the last major party to get there, but better late than never. A cynic might say that with Labour trialing the Tories by an astounding 15%, the Labour Party position on Brexit in chaos and Corbyn's ratings the lowest for any Opposition leader since records began, this isn't a promsie they will need to make good on. But it's certainly, in Sir Humphry's terms, a 'brave' policy to oppose Johnson's pledge to increase sentence engths and build 10 new prisons. I suspect that most voters, in the febrile atmosphere of the Election, will back Johnson on this. The run up to a bitterly fought Election isn't the ideal time to introduce voters to the nuances of criminal justice policy. Recall that Labour won in 1997 with 'tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime'. Of course, that was wicked New Labour. Still - they won, eh?
Does Burgon's policy stack up? Not really. The number of prison places taken up by offenders serving sentences other than for sex and violence (excluded from Labour's policy) would be around 2,500 on MoJ figures. If one assumes, on past experience, that some sentencers will use the override of discretion (implied by the word 'presumption') and that others will impose over 6 months in order to get a custodial sentence, the policy will save maybe 1,500 places. Some relief for hard pressed locals but not enough to significantly reduce overcrowding.
As for investment in community services, the time lag involved in building up the services and then persuading sentencers to use them means there would be little result on the ground for 2 or 3 years. Moreover past experience suggest that simply increasing options in the community doesn't necessarily have a big effetct on prison numbers.
Plainly what Labour are not going to do is question the huge increase in the proportion of offenders sent to jail, and in the length of sentnces, that has occured since 1997 (most of it under, as it happens, Labour).
Finally, Labour's (and Johnson's) plans to increase police numbers will result in an increase in numbers convicted and sent to prison. At present we are seeing a big drop in numbers sentenced because of cuts 'upstream' in the police and CPS. Reversing those cuts will liberate pent up demand. This would be more than enough to cancel out the relief for reducing use of short sentences.
So while Labour's policy may be the right thing to do, the timing is pretty unfortunate, and if implemented, it would not ease the prison crisis.
Whatever else Brexit may bring, today appears to mark the final extinction of Liberal Toryism, the rich history of which began with Disraeli, included Macmillan and Heath (who took us into the EU) and which ends with Grieve, Clarke, Gauke, and others, de-selected for daring to oppose the leadership (something even Thatcher never did to her ‘wets’, and which Corbyn now dares not do to those who oppose him in the Parliamentary Party).
Indeed, the Conservative Party itself has been destroyed, and re-invented to look and sound like UKIP, in the same way as Trump re-made the Republican Party in his own image. The Party of the Union has become the party that does not give a toss if Scotland breaks away and Ireland absorbs Ulster (the DUP about the reap an appropriate reward). The Party of sound finance is going on an unfunded spending spree that would have had Thatcher in a rage. The Party of the Constitution is tearing up the restraint on which our unwritten ‘Constitution’ rests. The Party of the rule of law denounces the Supreme Court of this country as ‘Enemies of the people’ (get ready for elected judges; why is it the Tories love so uncritically anything American?). The Party of the City is throwing our financial and manufacturing sector to the dogs. And so on.
What does the New Tory Party care for? Ugly English nationalism. Suspicion if not hatred of foreigners and immigrants and Muslims. Featherbedding the rich. Hatred of the public sector. Contempt for the Welfare State or, at least, those parts of it not directed primarily to the needs of the old. The crushing of opposing ideas by any means. Delight in transgressive language and behaviour. Not fascist, of course, but perhaps ‘pre-fascist’. The Party of Cummings replaces the Party of Disraeli.
This seems to delight some on the Left. It should not. Liberal Conservatism is part of our political heritage, how we think, how we see things. It has been a hugely civilising and moderating influence and helps explain why we have (to date) been so free of extremism in our politics.
All parties need to some extent to be coalitions. The idea that there is only one truth, one policy, one leader and that all doubts and dissent are wicked, is deeply unhealthy. It is, dare I say, positively Continental. If Liberal Toryism goes under, we become less …. English. We lose something vital.
What astonishes, both in the case of Trump and our mini-Trump here, is how few of the old party mind the wrenching change in policies and the outrageous behaviour of the new regime. As long as we stay in power and the money stays with us, we don’t give a fuck about anything, seems to be their motto.
How much more, then, to respect those who have said ‘No’:
Johnson has of course a long history of barefaced lying, falsifying facts, playing fast and loose with evidence, plagiarism. So, it’s no surprise that this week’s announcement by the Ministry of Justice about prison building is rife with all of these. What is new is that Robert Buckland, the new Secretary of State, has put his name to this nonsense, presumably a price he was willing to pay for promotion. He has already failed to live up to the requirements of his office.
Here are some of the many ways in which today’s statement simply does not hold up:
I wonder if Johnson's crime binge is that clever?
Although crime is rising up the agenda - it was off the top ten list of peoples' worries about the country a few years back - it is still lower on the list than Brexit, the NHS and the economy, drawing equal with the environment for 4th place (You Gov pol a few days back). He might have done better to use the ExpressTelegraphMail to plant lurid crime stories for a few weeks beforehand to increase the level of fear, but of course its the off season and the Election is only weeks away.
(BTW few seem to have noted that the 'boost' for the NHS he announced is for one year only. Just as his prison building bonanza promises money (from the Magic Money Tree, since the promise is unfunded) to build more prisons, not operate them. Clearly whatever his public stance, Johnson understands all too well what the economy, and therefore public finances, will be like after we have driven Johnny Foreigner away for good....
Never in my life have I so bitterly regretted being right;
Outside the MoJ itself, there is universal agreement that the main cause of the crisis of violence, drug taking and self harm in our prisons was the cut in front line staff of nearly 1 in 3 made by the lamentable Grayling, coupled with loss of experienced staff and cuts in pay that made subsequent recruitment and retention much more difficult.
Tory Ministers have taken great pains both to refrain from claiming that the cuts had no effect, or stating catgeorically that the causes lay elsewhere, though the lamentable Grayling seemed to suggest that new drugs, gang culture, more serious offences and maybe the wrong sort of snow were the real causes and cutting staff had been a thoroughy brilliant wheeze on his part.
The figures from Scotland seemed to bear out the non Grayling view: the data, some years old, showed that there had been no cuts in staffing and that levels of assaults and self harm barely rose.
But the very latest data from Scotland via FoI show a very different picture. Staffing hasn't changed much but self harm and violence have nevertheless soared, just as in E and W. (Note that the definition of self harm changed in 2017, but the trend before and after that date is unmistakably sharply upwards.)
Note: assault and self harm rates show % change on 2013 base, on rt hand scale.
Indeed, when one plots trends in the two countries together, the similarity is striking. We started earlier, south of the border; but we have ended up in much the same place. The politics plays out differently, but then we dont have in Scotland a Left Opposition anxious to blame Govenrment for the sins of austerity, nor for that matter an Inspectorate with the same power to issue an Urgent Notification.
One must therefore revisit the explanation for the crisis south of the border. There seems now more force in MoJ's argument that it was not just, or even primarily, the staffing cuts that caused our crisis. The fact that the crisis hit our private prisons just as badly, thugh few of them experienced cuts in staffing, also points the same way.
Still, it would be entirely counter-intuitive to believe that removing 1 in 3 front line staff, inlcuding many experienced middle managers, and making recruitment and retention much more difficult, can have had no effect. That maybe has a bearing on the difference in timing. Or did the new drugs just take longer to reach Scottish prisons?
Richard Burgon, Shadow Justice Minister, had a field day with his debate on prisons and probation on 14 May, here. His advocacy of a return to monopoly services had both wind and tide with it, what with the disaster of botched probation privatisation plain for all to see, and a timely bit of analysis showing the levels of violence are higher in private than in public prisons.
But what really made his day was that David Gauke had nothing to say in defence of the private sector, other than bland platitudes about innovation and some favourable inspection reports. Granted it was difficult to use the argument that, thanks to Grayling's cuts, the public sector is as fucked up as the private sector (the public sector 'flagship' of Berwyn springs to mind). Difficult, too, to run the argument that the private sector is ony more violent because (even) more overcrowded.
But it is astonishing that he made no use of the Cambridge research that has shown the private sector stronger on 'respect' though weaker on 'control' (shorthand for a much more nuanced report), or improving dramatically at Birmingham in the first years after G4S took over; and that he failed also to point out what a scandal the public sector was when last a monopoly. It is also beyond belief that the civil servants appeared not to have noticed previously that private prisons have a higher level of violence, or to have any response to those figures, which they themselves had just put together.
As I pointed out in my book, one of the most astonishing, and unpardonable, things about privatisation has been Governments (Labour and Tory) complete lack of interest either in evaluating the results, or making the case publicly. The privatisers seem to think it unnecessary to make their case, even though polls showed as far back as 2011 that the public did not support privately run prisons. They now reap the reward.
There is a kind of institutional studidity in Government nowadays, on this and many other matters. The MoJ sees to have dispensed with its research unit altogether. That made Gauke's attempt to contrast the Governments' supposedly evidence based approach with Labour's ideological bent doubly painful - because on this occasion, Labour had the evidence, the Government had none. It is not Labour that will kill off outsourcing, one of the biggest policy experiments in UK history: it has already been killed off by the ignorance and incompetence of Tory Ministers.
Not that Labour emerge with any credit. Burgon, like Khan before him, has never shown any real interest in justice, beyond a weapon to beat Government with on cuts and privatisation. In particular, Labour have been way behind all other parties in committing to sentencing reform. Everything Labour has to say about the importance of rehabilitation has been said dozens of times before, by every single Minister right back to Michael Howard. Labour, too, are bereft of any real ideas (1), other than restoring the monopoly power of their union friends, the Prison Officers' Association . And there is very good evidence as to where that leads.
(1) Has there been any significant new idea in the past quarter century - since Labour introduced 'what works' evidence-based interventions in 1997 (but sadly not evidence-based sentencing, on which Government continues down the decades to do what it knows does not work).
Grayling with mouth wide open, foot sure to follow.
Gauke's announcement today of renationalisation of the probation service was the right decision and will be welcomed by everyone (except 'Reform', the PR people for outsourcers, I notice). Indeed, it was inevitable, the Balkanised structure Grayling set up had to be replaced by a unifed service, and that could only be publicy run.
Many questions remain about the new structure, not least cost.
Much has been made of the figure put out by the National Audit Office of £500m, but that was the cost in excess of what the Grayling reforms should have cost Similarly the Public Accounts Committee). But the Grayling structure could never have worked, that is now clear.
The important figure is the cost of the new nationalised service compared to what it would have cost, had Grayling been strangled at birth, and the old public system continued. That, together with set up and transitional costs (which may run into many tens of millions), would give us the true 'cost of Grayling'. We won't know that figure for some time, not least because MoJ is now consulting on the new structure. The calculation is complex, for example Grayling extended probation supervision to short term prisoners, so extra workload, but then total court ordered supervision of offenders has fallen - and Gauke wants to do away with short terms sentences altogether.
What is certain is that the new arrangements will cost a shedload of money more than MoJ has available, since their spending plans were based on Grayling's reforms working, and part of that was to get cost out of the old public sector structure. The discussions with HMT must have been interesting, as MoJ was struggling with a £1bn overspend even before this volte face.
If one adds to this the cost of Grayling's bizarre contracts for ferry services with companies who don't in point of fact run ferries, which were then cancelled at huge expense, the successful claim by Eurotunnel, the forthcoming claim by rival ferry companies, the legal actions by Arriva and Stagecoach relating to Grayling's handling of rail franchise contratcs, to name only the ones we know about, Grayling seems to be one of the most expensive idiots in politics (a closely fought field). It looks like the all up costs of Grayling to the British state could be as much as £500,000 for each day in office.
(I refer only to financial costs. There are then the human costs - staff made redundant, staff public and private sector alike over-worked, offenders not properly supervised, left homeless, self harming and being assaulted in prisons as a result of those cuts....)
What this saga reveals is that the system of accountability on which Parliament relies isn't fit for purpose. Because if you keep moving quickly enough from one Department to another, it's your hapless successors who have to clear up the mess you dumped on them, and answer for it.
The Public Accounts Committee should innovate - they are always demanding that the public setcor innovate, now's their chance to do so. Hold an inquiry into the consequences for public spending of Christopher Stephen Grayling.
In 2013 the Government announced that it had just discovered that G4S and SERCO has been billing excessively for their contracts for electronic monitoring of offenders. The companies were made to pay back some £200m. It has been established that amongst other things, the companies were billing for work they had not done.
The Government referrred them to the Serious Fraud Office. 6 years later, the SFO are still mulling over the case. Granted, it is one of the most complex in the entire history of the SFO, featuring as it does no fewer than one victim, no fewer than 2 companies, no fewer than 2 contracts and no fewer than one jurisdiction. Obviously, that must takes many years to unpick!
Meanwhile, here is an interesting graph. It is interesting because as a general rule, if volumes of work done under contract rise, in this case getting towards doubling, the unit cost - the cost per item - can be expected to fall. This is because fixed costs are spread over more items. This is a basic rule of intelligent contracting.
But in this case, the unit cost actually increased as volumes increased. That would be bizarre whether or not the companies billed for work not done. And suggests that there was something very wrong indeed with the contracts themselves.
Source: National Audit Office, 'The Ministry of Justice's electronic monitoring contracts', 2013
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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