Friday, 24 August 2018
Austerity, prisons and long -term damage
Towards the end of this week's Monday Guardian column on economic affairs Larry Elliott wrote:
It is no real defence for those who so avidly embraced austerity to point to the return of growth as evidence that they were right all along. All economies recover eventually: the question is whether a less damaging approach could have been adopted, to which the answer is yes . . . As it is, extensive and permanent damage has been done. First there is the social cost of a decade of failed austerity: the closed libraries, the mothballed care centres, the increase in the number of food banks.
Elliott doesn't mention the shocking deterioration of conditions in our prisons because when he was writing the bombshell of the report on Birmingham prison (blood, vomit and faeces not cleaned up, infestment with cockroaches and rats, staff hiding in fear of violent prisoners, other prisoner cowering behind their cell doors as urine and faeces were squirted at them, staff asleep) had hit the headlines
The running of Birmingham prison has now been taken out of the hands of the private company, G4S, and my first reaction was indignation that this company, of known and proven incompetence (under their original name of Group 4 they "lost" some prisoners on the very first day of their contract to transport them, and they are the ones who failed to supply security for the London Olympics so the public sector in the form of the army had to be called in to do the job) was till being given government contacts.
I still stand by that. Whatever the pros and cons of the relative efficiencies of the public and private sectors (and the evidence is there's not much to choose between them) there is no case for deeply personal services to be outsourced for private profit. The deprivation of liberty is surely a function which should be reserved to the state alone.
However, it has been pointed out by many (one example here) that the crisis in our prisons (and Birmingham is apparently one of many), is just one, and perhaps the most hidden and least susceptible to public indignation, result of the misguided austerity programme operated by our governments since 2010. The Ministry of Justice, responsible for the prisons, has suffered the deepest cuts of any government department - scheduled to be an astonishing 40% before 2020. The number of prison officers had already been reduced by 7 000 by February last year. Today's figure is surely higher.
The mantra "doing more with less" is just a silly slogan snatched from a facile business studies textbook. There is waste in all organisation, public and private, and there always will be. But there is a limit to the extent that such "waste" can be squeezed out without serious damage to the effectiveness of the organisation, and that limit is reached well before the 40% mark.
Cuts to library services, neglected parks, closed Sure Start centres for parents and children, may be shrugged off by the comfortable as just the froth on the essentials of society. After all, the comfortable can afford to buy their own books, have their own gardens to relax in, and the very comfortable can afford nannies to bring up their kids in the paths of health and virtue. But the poorer amongst us need those facilities. Theri absence is a blot on our society.
And the inhumane treatment of those society has decided to imprison, a huge proportion of whom are mentally ill, is a blot on our claim to be civilised.
Winston Churchill, that hero of the Tories, is on record as saying: "The mood and temper of the public in regard to the treatment of crime and criminals is one of the most unfailing tests of the civilisation of any country," (though he was probably still a Liberal when he said that.)
Today's Tories could begin to make amends by dropping Brexit and transferring the 9 000 extra bodies apparently now needed to organise it to the prison service instead. That would be a start.
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