Prisons: cheaper, not smaller

Richard Garside
Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Politicians' speeches can be disappointing affairs. Eye-catching initiatives are trailed in advance and major announcements promised. In delivery they can savour of anticlimax, offering little more than a predictable hodge-podge of re-announced policy and easy political posturing.

This morning's speech by justice secretary Chris Grayling had all the hallmarks of this kind of speech. The eye-catching initiative was the widely-reported proposal for ex-prisoner mentors. Whether it is either possible or desirable to rely on ex-prisoners for the complex and challenging job of supporting resettlement is another matter. I would not automatically be a good teacher just because I have had the experience of going to school. Were I to fly to New York I would want an experienced pilot in the cockpit, not an ex-passenger who had made the trip before. Professional expertise, properly recompensed, does matter.

The big announcement at one point looked like being the publication of the government's plans for the probation service. This did not come. The rumours are that we will now have to wait until the new year to find out what the government is thinking.

The speech also contained a fair number of re-announcements. Mr Grayling reaffirmed the government's commitment to the 'rehabilitation revolution' and payment by results (PbR). In questions afterwards he also said that PbR work would be contracted centrally by the Ministry of Justice, rather than through the localised commissioning envisaged by Ken Clarke's team. A paper setting out the detail of the government's plans is due to be published 'shortly'.

Mr Grayling repeated the mantra of putting victims 'at the heart of the justice system'. The examples he gave - more action on knife crime, more efficient court processes and a crackdown on anti-social behaviour - could have been promised by any government minister in the last couple of decades. Indeed, which politician of any political persuasion would argue in favour of victims being shoved to the periphery?

More interesting were his comments on prison, where he sounded much more like a traditional Conservative minister:

'I do believe that prison works, but it just does not work well enough. I have no doubt that one of the reasons for the lower crime levels in recent years is the fact that more people are in prison.

'Every police force will tell you that their burglary rates fall when their serial burglars are behind bars. That's just common sense, and it's why I don't want the courts to hold back from sending the right people to prison.'

Here is not the place to engage in the 'more prison equals less crime' debate, though I've written a short piece recently. We're hoping to do more work on this in the future.

How will the justice secretary deliver in an era of public spending cuts? The options, he said, were either to have 'fewer people in our prisons' or 'bring down the cost of each prison place'. His preference, unsurprisingly, was for the latter. In short, 'we have to focus on making the prison system cheaper not smaller'.

As we explore in UKJPR 2, out in February 2013, the coalition has been repositioning itself on imprisonment since the prime minister's press conference on sentencing in June 2011. Mr Grayling's comments were, though, a particularly clear and direct expression of this repositioning.

Also notable were Mr Grayling's comments on prison privatisation. On the decision to take the Wolds prison back into the public sector, he said:

We didn't take back the Wolds prison from G4S because of what happened at the Olympics. We did so because having looked at their bid, it made more sense to merge it with a group of neighbouring public sector prisons, with shared facilities, shared leadership and reduced costs.

It is sometimes forgotten that the public sector can deliver economies of scale that can elude the  private sector. Indeed one of the effects of the ongoing budget squeeze might be more public sector delivery, not less. The message from the Ministry of Justice to private sector companies appears to be that future success in winning prison contracts will be dependent on their delivering a competitive bid and genuine savings.

That said, and though the forward march of prison privatisation might have slowed for now, the Ministry of Justice continues to see the ongoing and growing involvement of non-state agencies - whether private companies or voluntary sector organisations - in prison and probation work as an important policy objective.

The announcement on payment by results will be an important sign of their intentions.