Monday, 8 February 2016

Rhetorical Policy Making?

There’s a lot to commend in David Cameron’s prison reform speech today, not least the language of moderation and humanity with which he describes people in conflict with the law. It certainly seems at odds with the views a man who claimed that the prospect of prisoners voting made him physically sick and who was Michael Howard’s special adviser. But it reinforced  the commitment Cameron made at last October’s party conference that prison reform would be a defining cause for  his government, with a range of initiatives designed to produce world class prisons fit for the 21st century.

Let’s leave to one side the fact that the marked decline in prison standards that Cameron decried today are in some part at least his own doing. And also the need to shrink the prison population which Cameron flatly denied. These political and policy questions will run and run. But what of the technical approach to prison management proposed today?

Cameron's bold solution lies in wholesale structural reform to the way prisons are run, modelled on the principles applied to health and education reforms. And its being done in a hurry. Cameron seemed to accept the findings of reviews into prison education and youth justice that have not been completed let alone published or debated.

But  on one of the central ideas, there must be serious questions about whether the deep seated problems in prisons catalogued by outgoing Inspector Nick Hardwick can simply be resolved by giving governors greater control over what look in many cases at least inadequate budgets.  Moreover unlike with schools or hospitals, prison’s consumers do not have the choice to attend one particular institution rather than another. The absence of consumer choice marks a clear distinction between education and health on the one hand and prisons on the other.

Blaming the bureaucracy for stifling innovation makes for good soundbites but as I have argued previously, important questions remain about what freedoms governors will actually enjoy first in the six “Reform Prisons” and more widely thereafter. Will governors be able to make more generous decisions about early or temporary release, introduce conjugal visits or create their own incentive and punishment schemes? Could they ignore the internationally acclaimed suicide and self- harm prevention procedures, allow prisoners to undertake comedy courses   or raise their levels of pay to the living wage?  The pressures of public acceptability and prisoners’ rights will surely limit the degree of innovation that Governors will in practice be able to apply. Michael Gove must indicate soon what will continue to be prescribed from the centre and what departures will be permitted

The Prison Governors Association response to the speech was lukewarm at best. In the absence of the necessary detail, many members will surely fear that prospects of performance related pay will not compensate for the risks of a buck being passed.

For the new system to work, there will also need to be clarity about the accountability arrangements for prisons.  Cameron promised more transparency with league tables to name and shame poor performers. But attribution of effects to particular institutions is arguably more difficult than with schools. Newly autonomous Governors will surely need some sort of advisory board or panel with whom to consult before introducing major innovations.

Finally the new approach while hoping for success must plan for failure .What happens in the event of an escape, the murder of an officer, a grave further offence on the one hand or simply an inability to drive down re-offending.  Are we to see a hire and fire approach on the part of the Secretary of State or something different.

Until Mr Gove can give compelling answers to some of these questions, Mr Cameron’s speech lies in the realm of rhetorical policy making. 

1 comment:

  1. Just on league tables, leaving aside the extra bureaucracy and extra yahbooing opportunities for media and party politicians and dubious reliability of any conviction records; how will scores take account of the fact that many if not most prisoners move between prisons during a single sentence of imprisonment?

    When I realised that Cameron was speaking at the dubious Policy Exchange organisation - public defenders of much of the probation transforming rehabilitation shambles in the consultation and design stage, who had spokespeople with no direct experience of probation - one who I think moved to Cameron’s private office – I became suspicious about who has really designed the reforms The transfer of prisoners, under the current arrangements, is inevitable- so the league tables idea seems a nonsense.

    If football league tables were constructed on such a basis, a system would need to be devised to take account of the fact that the overall position is affected by players changing teams mid-season and going and returning for loans to other teams. It is clearly NONSENSE and needs completely denouncing.

    Anyone who justifies it but has no way of scoring to take account of individual prisoner movements whose individual criminal records are going to affect the points awarded or subtracted from each prison's league score should probably be disregarded on most matters of consequence, as they will seem to be a person who ignores logic!