Friday, 1 April 2011

Manacles, morons, money-making and morality

Internet here is about as good as Alex Salmond's policies, so if you're looking for BMA stuff check  my twitter (@charliebelllive), which will have up to the minute updates on conference. I am currently in a bar with Hamish Meldrum, Chairman of the BMA Council... so here is a blog on current affairs that I wrote on the plane...

One thing which can’t go unnoticed is the absolutely unbelievable change to the prison system in the UK. No longer are we guaranteed that the hand of justice will be fair, even and community-based – no, instead we are diving head first (well, North first, needless to say) into a world of privatised prisons.
It doesn’t sound too outrageous to start with: especially in this time of cost-cutting, moving some public services out to the private sector is the ‘austerity compassionate conservatism’ that we’re being asked to support, or at least understand. However, is this not just a step too far? Take HMP Doncaster, for example – close to home for me, and indeed for the Labour leader Ed Miliband. The idea propounded by Ken Clarke QC, is that this will be a results based prison! And how will this be measured – simply, he suggests: the fewer repeat offenders, the more cash.
Maybe I’m over-complicating things, but I thought there were a few very simple concepts that British justice ran on: innocent until proven guilty, and all equal under the law. Well the first isn’t being challenged here (although it might well be under potential new rules governing child sex offence cases), but the second seems to be.
There is just such an incredible level of stupidity involved in the new plans. Once again, much like in the fee issue, money talks, sense is put to bed, and the philosophical – ideological indeed – reasoning behind the changes is totally ignored. Clarke, a natural liberal, surely cannot be very happy with the changes – and Labour, used to being seen as too ‘soft on crime’, will be unwilling to make too much noise: but they should. Another Blair (or actually Brown) phrase comes to mind – tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime. The latter, in particular, is philosophical – and something the government doesn’t seem to be considering in their ‘targets’ for prisons (indeed, I thought this was the government with new politics, moving away from the target culture…).
Let’s take the money for a second. How much is this saving – according to Mr Clarke, £265 million, over the lifetime of the contracts. Is it worth it? The current government mantra that cuts need to be deep, fast and now is already being somewhat eroded by their spending serious amounts on Ireland’s bailout, Libya and the World Cup bid. I’m not suggesting these are not worthy causes (maybe more on that anon), but the fact is, if there really is NO money, and the cuts were absolutely necessary to keep us on an even keel in May 2010, how much more now needs to be cut after those ventures? Nothing? If so, then something is awry. But anyway, is the relatively small saving worth it?
I would say absolutely not. What this means is that there is likely to be a disparity in provision at different prisons – look at the arguments over NHS contract outsourcing: are we looking for quality, or price? Surely the latter is important – even if it’s dressed up as ‘value-for-money’ – and if the former suffers, then we’re in trouble. The government’s answer – challenge private prison companies on their re-offending statistics, as though that’s an accurate way to determine quality.
The whole issue is another mess for the coalition – or the government, as I was reminded it is yesterday. Unless we can tackle the causes of crime, which will arguably be exacerbated with some of the badly-targeted cuts taking place, harping on about results from private prison companies is extraordinary. It’s an odd country where taxpayers are willing for companies to make profit, and shareholders to make money from prisons. I’m not one for public ownership of all utilities – thank goodness clause 4 was removed – but I am fully in support of public ownership of the things which are the cornerstone of our democracy.
It’s like the student fees issue – the questions which need to be asked aren’t being asked. ‘Prison works’ said Michael Howard. Does it? Do we have too many people in prison? Are community orders effective? What is prison for – punishment, preventing public danger, reformation? If the latter, why the low levels of education in prison? Why is there such a high level of crime in our inner cities? Why are so many petty criminals so poorly educated – and once again, cutting education budgets is inherently stupid! Why is there a huge increase in the level of antisocial behaviour? Look at knife and gun crime. Let’s get the causes of crime and effective methods to prevent offending first, and worry about cash once there is actually a plan.

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