If people want to argue that privately run prisons are wrong, fine - but let them argue the case, and not merely assert it.
But too often, they assume that because they personally think the idea wrong in theory, it must be wrong in practice too - privately run prisons must fail, because they think they should. And here they part company with reality. And that I do not respect.
Among such ideologues are: Richard Burgon, Labour Justice spokesman; Alan Travis, the Guardian Home Affairs correspondent; and Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League (for over 30 years! - come on, trustees, wakey wakey!).
My book shows that over 25 years, neither sector has convincingly and consistently done better than the other, though quite clearly, the private sector has been cheaper. And since all public spending has an opportunity cost, that you might think that means the private sector has done better.
Here is the assessment of the (public sector) HM Prison and Probation Service Agency for prisons in 2017-18, based on an elaborate methology which includes asking prisoners what they think, via anonymised surveys.
Of course, where ideology collides with reality, ideology usually wins. So I am not expecting to change any minds. Or even open them.
But let the facts speak for themselves.
interesting time for SERCO to re-activate the 'SERCO Institute', depending on your point of view, either a think-tank or a PR outfit for the outsourcing business, and rather grandly named for a 4th floor office in London. We've seen big failures by the private sector in railways, prisons, probation, healthcare, polls show the public strongly favour Labour's plans to end outsourcing, while SERCO itself is still under investigation by the Serious Fraud Office for massively overcharging Government for work it admits it did not do. In the past it was too glibly simply asserted that the private sector run services better than the public sector, or can do the job as well for less money. Nowadays, that simply does not convince. And now neither sector does a good job for public authorities seeking quality on the cheap. I hope the 'Institute' can persuade us otherwise, since I am no fan of monopolies, and the public sector is failing badly also (including its role as customer), but it will be an uphill task.
A start would be to found analysis in hard facts, not mere PR. One would like to see it argued in what areas or type of work the private sector have the edge, and why; equally, in what areas or types of work it does not have the edge; what kinds of partnership between public sector customer and private contractor work best; and above all, how outsourcers can do a decent job when (with a disastrous Brexit in the offing) there is simply not nearly enough money to meet the public's expectations in traditional ways. Can outsourcers indeed help change the way the public thinks, and works, in response to cuts likely to prove far more severe than anything yet experienced?
Some damned Tory Brexiter was saying the other day that it was high time we who oppose Brexit ‘come to terms’ with it, accept it as inevitable and ‘pull together’ for the country’s sake. Much as if I woke to found a majority in our household had decided to set fire to the curtains in our house, arguing that it would save on heating bills, I should accept their decision and smile benignly as they went about their senseless destruction. But I can’t bear to write more about that. Instead I shall give myself (and just possibly you) the pleasure of writing about two great films that are completely unavailable in this country, but which have recently come into my hands through rather roundabout routes.
One involves ‘coming to terms’, the other it’s opposite, for which there is no name. Now a certain person whose confidences I shall respect by calling him Felix, which happens to be the name of our son, says that if there is one thing he cannot abide, it’s film and novels about ‘coming to terms’. An odd aversion, since so many great films and novels are about just that – what else is ‘Gone with the wind’ or ‘It’s a wonderful life’ but ‘coming to terms’? But I think I know what he means, Felix, that is: a certain type of too-easy English resignation, acceptance of pointless failure, of life not properly lived: ‘Remains of the day’ or ‘Brief encounter’ type of thing.
The first of these films is about ‘coming to terms’ but in a far more positive, even joyous, way. It is ‘A ball at the Anjo’s house’ directed by Kōzaburō Yoshimura in 1947, at the start of the golden age of Japanese cinema. A high-born family is facing their own total defeat, in the wake of Japan’s defeat in war: they have lost their status, their titles, their money, the ancestral home, in short, their world. The father lost the house by credulously trusting to one of Japan’s new rich, who exploited the family name, tricked them into signing over the house and now disposes of them ruthlessly as no longer useful to him. His son hides his desperate sympathy for his father beneath a brittle veneer of world-weary cynicism, and dismisses the servant girl he has seduced with promises of marriage. One daughter, conscious of her rank, dismisses their former driver who adores her and who through hard work has made himself enough to offer to save the family home. The other daughter, played by the incomparable Setsuko Hara, is desperate to save her despairing father, who sharply rebuffs her plans.
(Hara specialised in such roles, notably in the films of Yasujirō Ozu, including ‘Tokyo story’ (1953), which ranks high on most lists of all-time great films. There was something of the father/daughter relationship between her and Ozu. On his death she never worked again and retired to a remote village where she died in 2015. Her roles, as the dutiful, self-sacrificing daughter, but happy in her self-sacrifice, don’t suit today’s feminists. But I know women like that, and they are not patsies or failures or weak, but amongst the best and strongest people I know. I don’t have a favourite actor, but I have a favourite actress: Setsuko Hara, who manages somehow to make every other actress seem a little…well, tawdry, somehow.)
The Anjos decide to hold one last ball in their home, just as they used to do, before losing it forever. Much goes wrong: their past is falling apart in front of their eyes. Yet Hara saves the day, averting her father’s suicide, and in an extraordinarily prolonged scene, almost without dialogue, bringing him, and the whole family, back to life, to love life again, to look forward to their uncertain place in the new Japan. She does it by dancing the tango with him. Wonderful, wonderful Setsuko Hara.
The second film, 'Sunday's children', is a sort of negative to that story: the erasure of a reconciliation, of kindness that was contained in the past. The script was by Ingmar Bergman and is about a Sunday in the household of his (thinly disguised) family household in rural Sweden in the 1900s, when Ingmar was 8 and his father a priest. The outwardly happy, boisterous household conceals a failing marriage and a harsh, sometimes physically brutal relationship between Bergman pere and Ingmar fils, extraordinarily played by Henrik Innros. In a flashforward, we briefly see both in 30 or 40 years’ time – the father is dying, the son visits him, they resume their lifetime’s quarrel bitterly, no coming to terms here. Yet in the present moment, that Sunday all those years ago, we see the two take a trip to a neighbouring parish, and on the way back taking refuge from a thunderstorm: and there is a time of simple happiness and love between them. I find that so moving: the idea of the moment of true happiness, forgotten later, inaccessible to the grown man, but always there, always real.
It adds to the pleasure of this film that it was written by Ingmar Bergman but directed by his son Daniel. Ingmar was notoriously not a good father to his many children from different wives, but he seems to have had some sort of relationship with Daniel, who learned his craft from watching his dad. And it is beautifully filmed, the cinematography like but not like his dad's films. Daniel soon abandoned cinema and became a paramedic working in ambulances, where he reasoned he did more good than by making films. As even my friend John Ellis, capo di capi of media professors, might agree. (Not that there is anything criminal about John, though he would make an excellently calm and shrewd capo di capi, more Godfather than Soprano, should the opportunity ever arise.)
I guess the reason I love these two films is that they show two eternal truths about us humans, which one becomes acutely aware of in old age: our need to tell us ourselves a story about our lives that tells us warts and all, it has a pattern and meaning, that yes, that bit ended and this bit started, but it all makes a kind of sense; and equally, that true meaning is as it were imprisoned on the moment, can only be known in that moment, cannot be overwritten by some larger meaning.
Plus, of course, neither film has anything to do with Brexit.
Best account I've read of exactly how a brave new all-signing, all-dancing new computer system can prove both a blessing and a curse. This is by a doctor, user/victim of a big new a system recently implemented in his healthcare group in the USA. At one and the same time, the system both saves users lots of time and consumes lots of their time, enables them to do so much more and makes it impossible to do their job properly, saves money and costs money.
It is particularly good on the work-arounds that users evolve in self-defence and how these may work, or make things worse. (In this case, a supposedly labour-saving computer system ends up causing each doctor to hire an assistant to use it – but it still probably a net benefit, even though some of the benefits are impossible to access, because of unintended side effects.)
To his credit, this is not a standard oh-god-what-idiot-designed-this! rant: it is more intelligent than that, conceding that it was right to change the status quo, and open to the idea that (some of) the nuisance he experiences might have been be necessary, even beneficial. This is a more helpful way to think about the benefits and disbenefits of computer projects than condemning systems as 'failures' for not having exactly the benefits that were promised.
And, maybe, not just computers.
Last week Rory Stewart, the prisons Minister, announced that operation of two new prisons, at Glen Parva and Wellingborough, will be offered to the private sector, with no in-house bid – though bids will be judged against a default a public sector benchmark, so public operation might still be a possible result. (They cannot be built using private finance, the Chancellor having formally abolished PFI in the Budget, though Stewart thinks private capital might yet find a role in the projected 'new for old' prisons deal, not yet agreed with Treasury. That sort of land swap is probably a better field for private capital - always assuming the customer is clued up enough not to be taken for an expensive ride.)
This will be welcome news to the private sector, given that it will be 8 years since the last competition started, and the last new build, Berwyn, was given to the public sector with no competition. But there are problems.
For a start, can the private sector still run prisons more cheaply than the State? The gap has much narrowed since MoJ savagely cut both staffing levels and pay in public sector prisons earlier this decade. While public sector pensions have also been cut, they are still much more generous than most defined benefit private schemes. But because the public scheme is unfunded, the true costs are unknowable, and can be magicked away through accountancy legerdemain. Besides, who cares about the deficit in 2050?
One can't answer that question by looking at the costs of existing prisons, because complex adjustments are needed to ensure fair comparison (and comparison is flatly impossible for privately run prisons built using PFI, as most are.) The best comparators are Berwyn and Oakwood, both big, new, Cat Cs – but comparison is complicated by the fact that Berwyn has been only slowly building up numbers. However, figures I have obtained indicate that when full, Berwyn's cost per prisoner could be in the region of 15-20% more expensive than Oakwood's.
But price is no longer the key: we are way past the point where the cheapest bid is the winner. Now, neither public nor private sector prisons are adequately funded, that is to say, for safe staffing levels – hence the chaotic violence that has overwhelmed so many prisons, in both sectors. So, a private sector bid that incorporated convincingly safe staffing levels might well be above the public benchmark. But if that were the case, how could the MoJ (running a structural deficit of about £1bn a year) give preferential funding to the private sector? Such is the dilemma of outsourcing in an age of austerity: unacceptably poor service, in a choice of two colours.
One also has to ask: who will bid? The MoJ foolishly allowed the market to consolidate from 4 operators down to just 3 in 2008 - of which 2, SERCO and G4S are still (after five years!) under investigation by the SFO, for over-charging on tagging contracts. Difficult, surely, for the MoJ to award a contract to a company that might be on trial for (or convicted of) fraud against it?
The MoJ no doubt thinks to bring in new operators. That has always been difficult. From the customers' perspective, a prison is about the riskiest service to contract for - so you look for companies that have some sort of record in managing offenders, or detention. They are few, and some are in America, where prisons are run very differently. And over the years, the Government has marched so many potential new operators – Reliance, MITIE, and GEO, amongst many others – up that particular hill and down again, before invariably awarding prison contracts to the three existing operators. Would any outsider have the appetite for another round, suspecting they are there just to make up the numbers?
And from the operators' perspective, just how appealing is a prison contract nowadays, anyway - with margins tighter than ever, and prisons more difficult and dangerous to run than ever, meaning huge commercial and reputational risk? Where it can be 8 years between opportunities - and many competitions are aborted mid-stream? For a customer which is institutionally incapable of planning more than couple of years ahead (spending plans never more than 3 years ahead, elections every 5 years or sooner, ministers changing every 18 months)? A customer whose last 3 big procurements - probation, FM, tagging - have all ended in very public failure? Where Treasury have not agreed funding of the 'new for old' programme, where private sector share of the system is already 18% and very unlikely to grow much, where the prison population and system can't rise much, because it simply can't be afforded? And with the market doomed if Labour get in – which may well happen even before these contracts are signed?
Would a potential new operator think this prospect worth the considerable investment – not much change from £1m - needed to mount a credible bid? In the past, I advised several companies to bid. If advising a board today, I'd say, look elsewhere for opportunities.
Indeed, it isn't even clear whether all the existing three operators would want to bid. G4S, in particular, has been badly bruised by repeated failures – at Birmingham prison, Medway Detention Centre, Brook House Immigration Removal Centre (for all that they run prisons at Altcourse and Rye Hill that are doing alright). It is possible that they have had enough.
What if the MoJ holds a party, but no one turns up?
Nice pictorial summary - in the recent devastating auditor's report on the chaotic mess that is MoJ - of the relative performance of the public sector probation service (NPS) and of privatised CRCs. To persist with this botched privatisation is perverse, wasteful, and against the public interest. So naturally, MoJ is doing just that.
The new Prison and Probation Ombusdman, Sue McAllister, began work this week.
The eagle-eyed Rob Allen has spotted an anomaly in this appointment: the Justice Secretary makes the appointment on the recommendation of the the Commons Justice Committee, which examines candidates in public to give assurance of some independent scrutiny. The Committee did examine McAllister, on 17 July. But it did not send a recommendation to the Secretary of State or, if it did, preferred to do so in secret – which negates the value of public scrutiny.
This may seem a bureaucratic nicety, but governance arrangements relating to appointments (and for that matter, dismissals) are there for a reason. The failure to follow them here is serious, implying a casual attitude by the Committee to its duties.
This is particularly so, as there a couple of serious question marks about McAllister's suitability.
First, she is hostile to the private sector, as a matter of ideology, as she to her credit candidly stated at the hearing: she thinks privately run prisons are plain wrong, and has condemned privatisation of probation. To my mind, this must cast doubt on the appointment. She will be arbitrating between prisoners/offenders and the private operating companies – which she thinks should not be in business at all. The Committee asked about this and were satisfied by her statement that despite her views, she would be at all time professional. Too easily satisfied, in my view. It is not, of course, a question about her integrity, but about the need for absolute impartiality to be demonstrated beyond doubt in such a role. I don't see how it can be, given her views.
Second, there is a general issue about appointing former governors (or probation managers) to such a role. Prisoners/offenders want to be assured that the post holder is completely neutral between them and the management – that is the whole point of the Ombudsman. I don't think that requirement is fully met if the post holder has spent her entire career in prison management. It can be argued that that experience is useful background to the job. But it must also raise the question whether the post holder can really be expected to see the issues entirely independently. Sometimes you need an outsider to take the robust view that what seems sensible, right and proper to prison governor isn't, in fact sensible, right and proper, to the general public.
It seems agreed that the Chief Inspector should not be an ex Governor: how is this post any different?
I have, let me say, no reason at all to question McAllister's capacity and skills. And it is a miserable thing to sound such doubts just as she starts work. Indeed: that is exactly why such issues should have been properly considered during the appointment process. Now is too late. Neither the MoJ nor the Justice Committee have done an adequate job here.
I fear there is no magic money tree for justice, so the only solution is to shrink the system: by Penelope Gibbs (reposted from LinkedIn)
A really excellent article by Penelope Gibbs on the breakdown of the courts system. So many people blog about prisons and probation, almost none about the equally serious disaster unfolding in our criminal courts. The analysis is stronger for being rooted so much in peoples' direct experience, and the prescription is unusual in offering genuinely new, genuinely practical solutions, not just shed loads of more money.
“Mags Ct today in chaos. 2 duty solicitors unable to cope because almost none of the 40+ defendants had own solicitors and all needed legal advice. There are consequences to reducing #legalaid scope and fees. Many cases adjourned to another day” @Halo_Lawyer
“Defendant appears at Mags Ct, but there’s no interpreter for him. Clerk says she won’t deal with him and will send him back to the Police Station. I query the lawfulness of this and am told this is what the regional court managers have said is to be done and it’s happened at other courts with no complaints. I point out that if they want to take that approach then I’ll expect to be quoted chapter + verse of legal basis for this – reply to that was, I’m the clerk, I don’t have to justify a decision” @neilsnds
“Two London Criminal defence firms I used to work for are about two months from going under due to the large number of people being released under investigation and due to the LAA making it a war of attrition to get PPE [pages of prosecution evidence] paid on any large Crown Court cases” @escobills
“The prison declined to bring the defendant to court because … they have spelled his name wrong on their paperwork. As we are asking for him by his actual name, it does not tally with their records. The fact that the Prison Number is the same is, it would seem, irrelevant” @ClonchFlud
“Trial adjournment application this morning in the mags. Schedule of unused [evidence] only served 2 days ago. Need to serve a defence statement. Court clerk had to be ‘guided’ to the view that this is an entitlement. Concerning” @Peter_L_Jones
“Another call today from Court to confirm tomorrow’s trial is off due to a lack of judicial/courtroom availability.3rd hearing in 2 months that I’ve had vacated the day before.Trying to explain that this is normal to clients & witnesses is never easy and it’ll only get worse” @SuffolkSolicita
“The ceiling in Court 7 at York House, Feltham, immigration tribunal fell down yesterday. All cases for that day adjourned. Cases for today supposed to be in Court 7 “floated” and then “floated out” [cancelled] at 3pm” @englishchick
“Currently prosecuting a trial with judge whose only concern is finishing so he can go on holiday next week. Outcome of every application contingent upon time it will take. We are now sitting at 09.30 every day He’s said he’ll discharge jury if we don’t finish on Friday” @F_E_Smith
“One of the biggest lessons this year has been this: Enforced speed is the enemy of justice. Dealing in bulk and getting punters in and out quickly sounds great.. but I think the public would feel safer and more confident if we were given time to read and consider” @CriminalPupil
These are just a few of the tweets I’ve seen in the last few days indicating that the courts system is coming apart at the seams. And if you search #thelawisbroken on twitter you will see hundreds more tales of lifts not working and cases adjourned. Last week I sat on a panel (organised by the South-Eastern Circuit of barristers) with Susan Acland-Hood, Chief Executive of the courts service. Around 30 lawyers chose to spend their evening giving their views on court reform, but inevitably the conversation dwelt on the kind of problems described above. I have seldom seen lawyers so frustrated and angry. Poor Susan was patient and courteous in responding, but I think even she was slightly shell-shocked by the palpable unhappiness. And by the scale of the problems – from court closures to administrative failure, from video links which don’t work to cancelled sittings.
Unfortunately I don’t think digital court reform will take us to new sunny uplands of effective courts. And before any of the reforms kick in, there is chaos to be sorted out. The only “saving grace” is that the police are investigating and the CPS prosecuting fewer crimes. So the workload in the courts is reducing. But diminished police resources means some crimes are not investigated properly, and disclosure is bungled.
The wise words of @criminalpupil that enforced speed is the enemy of justice I think provides part of the answer. There is no magic money tree for justice. There should be, but health, education and social care will always get priority when there is any money to spare. The only way of giving all court cases the time they deserve and getting enough money for the courts is to shrink the criminal justice system. Lets decriminalise lots of minor offences like possession of cannabis and non-payment of a TV licence. Lets divert a lot of low level cases away from court via out of court disposals, deferred prosecution and well facilitated restorative justice. Lets reduce the number of remand hearings by remanding fewer defendants. Lets have a moratorium on the creation of any new offences. If we shrunk the system, we might have some chance of paying lawyers a fair wage for their work, and of giving the cases in the courts the time they deserve – which would mean not delaying them because of a shortage of judges, nor rushing them through when they are actually heard.
Pie in the sky you think, but actually we have a home-grown case study. In England and Wales, we have shrunk the youth justice system considerably. There are fewer prosecutions, fewer first time entrants and fewer getting any kind of formal criminal justice disposal than ten years ago, and the child custody population has shrunk by two-thirds. Despite the recent media coverage of serious youth violence, there is no evidence that the shrinking of the system has led to an increase in youth crime (the number of proven offences has fallen by 75% in ten years). Overall the shrinking of the youth justice system has led to fewer children being criminalised and to the remaining money going further. I would shrink the system even more through raising the age of criminal responsibility and raising the prosecution threshold, but I feel the shrinkage so far has been positive. And it has, for the most part. been tolerated by politicians and the public. So lets try shrinking the adult system so the money available might possibly be sufficient.
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.”
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