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The failure of HMP Birmingham isn’t about privatisation. It’s worse than that.

20 August 2018

11:11 AM

20 August 2018

11:11 AM

Last week Prisons Minister Rory Stewart vowed to quit his job if he didn’t oversee specific improvements in a group of struggling prisons. ‘I believe in the prison service,’ he said. ‘I believe in our prison officers. I believe that this can be turned around and I want you to judge me on those results and I will resign if I don’t succeed.’

This pledge sounded both refreshing and naive – unless, of course, Stewart had some more exciting plans for what he’d like to do in 12 months’ time (or he was expecting to be reshuffled before this). It’s rare that ministers take responsibility for failures on their watch. But the Ministry of Justice has come to be regarded in Whitehall as a basket-case department, with policies that crumble almost as visibly as the prisons it oversees. Of all the portfolios to try to promise success in, the justice one must surely be the hardest.

To underline this, the MoJ has today taken HMP Birmingham back under its control, after a damning inspection into the G4S-run prison. Conditions at the category B prison had deteriorated significantly since the last inspection in 2017, with cockroaches, blood and vomit in the corridors and prisoners getting away with violence and drug-taking. In fact, prison officers didn’t even know where their charges were, with gangs able to operate with impunity.

This has immediately sparked a debate about privatisation. And while G4S is one of those providers so big that its mottled service record seems barely to matter (which, by the way, is one of the things a proper market in public services is supposed to avoid), it’s worth noting that the last report that levelled these kinds of criticisms was into publicly-run Liverpool prison. That report, published earlier this year, also found cockroaches, mentally ill prisoners being left alone for weeks in damp cells and drug-carrying drones. So is the real problem the government department charged with oversight of all prisons, public and private?

That government department, by the way, isn’t just struggling to provide a prison system that could come anywhere close to a definition of ‘success’. The criminal justice system more widely is crumbling. The legal aid cuts were incredibly poorly-scrutinised when they were going through Parliament, and their impact has largely been ignored since, but not only have they led to legal aid ‘deserts’ in some parts of the country where people simply cannot get the advice they are entitled to, they have also led, according to the Master of the Rolls, to miscarriages of justice as a result of people trying to represent themselves in court. Even those who can afford a legal team to help clear their name then find themselves lumbered with an enormous legal bill as a reward for walking free.

It might seem odd that such a sorry state of affairs in our courts and in our jails doesn’t attract much attention. I suspect this is because the group of people for whom a day at Magistrates’ or Crown Court and then a spell inside seems a real possibility tend not to be the most vocal or well-represented. Most people are much better able to imagine that they’ll need a clean, well-run hospital than a decent criminal justice system. But then every so often there’s a reminder that it could actually be you, too, such as the ordeal that former Conservative special adviser Richard Holden was dragged through earlier this year when he was accused – and, after 15 months, acquitted by a jury in 30 minutes – of sexual assault.

What can be done? Well, perhaps there are reforms that might improve the way prisons are run, maybe even encourage proper competition between providers as opposed to the complacency and lack of accountability that poorly-privatised public services suffer from. But it does seem as though one of the key problems with the criminal justice system isn’t so much how it’s structured as how it is funded.

The MoJ’s budgets were cut not because they were too fat – though ministers and loyal backbenchers did try to argue this at the time – but because all departments had to make cuts. This meant that cuts were made not because they made sense, but because savings had to be found somehow, anyhow. The question ministers should be asking now is whether there is a more intelligent way of funding justice than merely cutting to target.

Rory Stewart is a junior minister. His boss David Gauke may not want to make the same pledge to resign if he doesn’t see success across his MoJ portfolio. After all, it seems unreasonable to hope that the MoJ will see success: perhaps it would be better for ministers to hope for a milder form of failure.

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