Friday, 13 June 2014

Are the wheels finally coming off at the Ministry of Justice?

Like the Spanish football team, is this the week the wheels came off the coalition administration? It’s one thing for Cabinet ministers to bicker publicly about who is to blame for extremism , another for their departments to fail to carry out their basic responsibilities whether it is monitoring what happens in schools , providing passports or benefits with a modicum of efficiency.

But it may be the Ministry of Justice where things are starting to go wrong most seriously. Litigants no longer able to obtain legal aid are causing problems for the courts, probation officers are struggling to operate a new twin track service and today it is reported that 40 jails , many already overcrowded,  are being required to take yet more prisoners to cope with what we are told is an unexpected surge in numbers.

Just as it seems the Home Office knew full well that passport applications in the UK would rise once   overseas processing centres were shut, so the Ministry of Justice were warned that closing thirteen of its more costly prisons over the last three years could leave it short of capacity. Today’s confirmation that it has done is not only embarrassing for Chris Grayling. The Public Accounts Committee recently concluded that the management of the prison estate is a best practice case example in achieving cost reductions, which HM Treasury should ensure is disseminated widely across Government. Perhaps the other departments’ failings flow from following Margaret Hodge’s foolhardy lesson that you can cut costs without incurring consequences.

The consequences in prisons may be far more dangerous than a missed holiday. The establishments being forced to increase capacity include three which have recently been inspected; at Durham inspectors found virtually every cell holding more prisoners than it should, at Wandsworth too many prisoners required to share a cell and at Leicester a degree of overcrowding they considered unacceptable. These and other prisons are having to face increasing demands while making yet more cuts. The governor told an inquest this week that reduced staffing levels are compromising the safety of prisoners at Woodhill. The Coroner will be writing to Chris Grayling asking him to review those levels in order to prevent further deaths.

“Good luck with that” one is tempted to think.  Grayling has long been committed to making prisons cheaper not smaller and is now more bullish still, making "no apology that we are sending more criminals to prison" because "that's what the public want". Public attitudes are actually a good deal less punitive than he makes out and there is surely in any event more to being a Justice Secretary than acceding to populist demands. Providing the resources for the prison system to be run in a safe and constructive way for a start.

1 comment:

  1. Another comprehensive overview - thanks for saying what the Media in UK do not report!