Wednesday, 2 November 2016

Forget about the price tag? What to look for in the Prisons White Paper

Today’s meeting between Liz Truss and the POA will have come too late to influence the contents of tomorrow’s White Paper, but prison staff and those of us who care about prisons will be looking at two key elements if we are to have confidence in the government’s plans for the beleaguered service

First will it include a costed plan for properly staffing jails? It’s quite clear that in the Coalition years, faced with wholesale privatisation, public prisons accepted staffing levels in many cases too low to be safe, let alone achieve the lofty objectives subsequently promised by Messrs Gove and Cameron. While Mr Grayling is the main villain of the piece as the author of the Faustian pact forced on the service, Ken Clarke bears some blame for reaching too stringent a financial settlement with the Treasury back in 2010.  When his plans for reducing prison numbers crashed and burned, the funds were not adjusted upwards to cope with new projections.

Six years on, the bottom line is that the benchmarking exercise which helped take a billion pounds out of the NOMS budget needs redoing and the resources found to fund what results from it. Just as  the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) were asked after the Mid Staffs Hospital disaster to look at safe staffing for nursing in adult inpatient wards in acute hospitals, an independent body should do so in respect of prisons. With an advisory board comprising personnel at all levels and ex prisoners, it should look seriously at how many staff are required to meet the expectations set by Prison Inspectors and the various recommendations made by them and the Ombudsman. Benchmarking Mark Two should be completed by Easter. 

An alternative would be to return to 2010 frontline staffing levels- something recommended by last week's admirable RSA report. But whether Ms Truss has persuaded the Treasury to provide much in the way of additional cash must be doubtful. Her Permanent Secretary told the Justice Committee a fortnight ago that “the subject we talk about most in my executive committee is improving our finances and bearing down on the gap between our allocation and our projected spend.”

This means the White Paper must propose ways of reducing the prison population, the second and more controversial matter.  I have argued that replacing short sentences with community supervision may be desirable but will not provide enough relief. In addition the Ministry will need to look to halt the upward drift in sentence lengths. A report I’ve written for Transform Justice, to be published next month, will argue that the time is right to revisit the aims and purposes of the Sentencing Council in order to reduce the extent to which courts impose imprisonment and the lengths of its terms.   Ms Truss previously argued for longer sentences and tougher prisons but wherever she once wanted the ship of penal policy to go, she surely knows now her job is to keep it afloat.

Without manageable prisoner numbers and enough staff, the governor autonomy agenda – now known as empowerment – will not get prison reform very far.  Nor will the £1.3 billion capital programme for 9 new prisons which are supposed to be completed by 2020. Expect some re-profiling of this. If Treasury rules allow, some of the funds could be used to boost the budgets for running existing prisons (and the new prison at Wrexham) more safely and  for pump priming measures to divert low risk offenders from prison. This must be the priority for Ms Truss over the lifetime of the parliament rather than the grandiose schemes of her predecessor.     

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