Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Long Shadow of 2011 Riots

It's looking increasingly likely that history is going to record that it was the summer riots of 2011 and Justice Secretary Ken Clarke's response to them that set in train the crisis we now face in pretty much all parts of the Criminal Justice System. It sowed the seeds of the disastrous breaking up of the Probation Service; gave a boost to increasing prison numbers and set in train the waste of huge sums of government money on Louise Casey's 'Troubled Families' project. 

Of course this all happened during a period of austerity brought about by the 2008 banking crisis and the consequential cuts in government spending that had to be endured by the Prison and Probation Service. In a perfect example of what happens when experts are not listened to and false economies are instituted, we now face having to spend huge sums in order to try and reverse the havoc wrecked by some very bad political policy decisions that were supposedly designed to cure the problem, curry public support and save money. And just look where it's got us.  

Here's Ken Clarke writing in the Guardian in September 2011:-

Kenneth Clarke blames English riots on a 'broken penal system'

The justice secretary, Kenneth Clarke, has blamed the riots that swept across England last month on a "broken penal system" that has failed to rehabilitate a group of hardcore offenders he describes as the "criminal classes".

Revealing for the first time that almost 75% of those aged over 18 charged with offences committed during the riots had prior convictions, Clarke said the civil unrest had laid bare an urgent need for penal reform to stop reoffending among "a feral underclass, cut off from the mainstream in everything but its materialism".

Writing in the Guardian, Clarke dismisses criticism of the severity of sentences handed down to rioters and said judges had been "getting it about right". However, he adds that punishment alone was "not enough".

"It's not yet been widely recognised, but the hardcore of the rioters were in fact known criminals. Close to three quarters of those aged 18 or over charged with riot offences already had a prior conviction. That is the legacy of a broken penal system – one whose record in preventing reoffending has been straightforwardly dreadful."

He says: "In my view, the riots can be seen in part as an outburst of outrageous behaviour by the criminal classes – individuals and families familiar with the justice system, who haven't been changed by their past punishments."

Clarke uses his intervention to call for the coalition government to adopt a "renewed mission" in response to the riots that addressed an "appalling social deficit". His comments will reignite the debate on the causes of the disturbances, which the prime minister, David Cameron, has said "were not about poverty".


Five years later and there's now widespread acceptance that we have a crisis in the Criminal Justice System. Here's the latest blog post by Frances Crook of the Howard League:- 

The answer to the prison crisis is simple: less is better

Yesterday, Liz Truss made a statement and answered questions in Parliament following the riot in Birmingham prison.

She reiterated her plan to recruit more staff, although this will only replace a quarter of those who were got rid of by her predecessor-but-one. Other plans involve curtailing the use of mobile phones and testing for drugs. I believe her when she says she is primarily concerned about safety and that her aim is to make prisons places that provide a positive experience. Unfortunately, her plans are far too unambitious and will not have the desired effect.

It is worth looking back at how prisons got into this mess. Labour presided over an explosion in the use of prison, locking up the poor, the mentally ill and the annoying in ever greater numbers. It poured billions into building new prisons to cope with this human flood and invested in basic skills education. The money was never enough to deal properly with the torrent of humanity being crammed into jails but was just about enough to keep a lid on suicides and unrest.

Ken Clarke was genuinely shocked at the size of the prison population when he took over as Lord Chancellor in the Coalition government. He introduced measure to control the magistrates’ propensity to remand to custody and tried to improve regimes. Slowly, numbers went down.

Chris Grayling wanted to be seen to be tough. He closed prisons and crammed people into fewer establishments and drastically cut staff, both officers and managers. The result was an increase in violent assaults on prisoners and staff, an increase in self-injury and an increase in suicides. This year we have already surpassed the record number of people taking their own lives.

Michael Gove undid some of Grayling’s policies but, most importantly, he led a national conversation to try to get a consensus that prison should be a place for the few and even they could be redeemed. Meanwhile, prisons deteriorated.

Liz Truss has only been in the job for five months. She has a stark choice and she has, I think, made the wrong decision. It is simply not feasible to make prisons safe and purposeful by recruiting a few more staff. The only solution to the prison crisis is to have fewer prisoners.

The prisons are bloated with people who are serving excessively long sentences. There has, rightly, been concern about people who are years past their tariff on indeterminate sentences that were abolished years ago, but, there are thousands of others who are the victims of sentence inflation.

Liz Truss needs the support of the Prime Minister to deal with the prison crisis. She needs to reduce the number of people in prison and there are various technical routes to achieve this. But most importantly, she has to take advantage of the ground laid by Michael Gove and the public understanding of the crisis arising from the riots, murders and deaths. This is the time to take control and be bold. She should say she is going to reduce the prison population to what it was under Margaret Thatcher. By halving the number of prisoners, she could make prisons safe and purposeful and she could save public money.

We don’t need to squander more money on building ever more cesspit prisons. The answer to the crisis is simple: less is better.


Even the FT feels it's time to reduce the number of people incarcerated:-

Britain’s prisons are a national disgrace

The degree of civilisation in a society can be judged by entering its prisons, Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote in 1862. The Russian writer’s words apply directly to the UK, with its overcrowded and increasingly violent prisons. The spate of riots in institutions across the country suggests that the custodial system is close to meltdown.

Over the past 25 years, the UK’s prison population has exploded, doubling to more than 85,000 inmates. Yet staffing has been cut drastically and budgets have failed to keep pace, especially during the era of austerity after the financial crisis. The introduction of private sector-run prisons has not proved a panacea.

The riot at HMP Birmingham on Friday highlights how the authorities have lost control of their prisons. The disturbance, which spread across four wings of the dilapidated Victorian-era prison and involved 260 prisoners, took 12 hours to end. A team of “Tornado” prison guards, specially trained to deal with riots, had to be brought in to regain stability. More than 300 inmates have been moved out of the prison as a result of the damage.

The incident follows a violent outbreak at a prison in Bedford and a six-hour rampage at another in Lewes, East Sussex. These three events have one thing in common, according to the National Council of Independent Monitoring Boards: staffing shortages. Over the past five years, the number of prison officers in the UK has been cut by 31 per cent. The result is that prisoners are being kept in their cells for up to 23 hours a day — a recipe for boredom, frustration and violent conduct.

Liz Truss, the justice secretary, has acknowledged that the dire state of Britain’s prisons is a longstanding problem which will not be solved in a matter of weeks or months. Her response has been to unveil a major investment programme, delivering 2,500 extra prison officers, greater autonomy for prison governors and tougher drug checks (a reflection of how prisoners have compromised security in many prisons).

These reforms are welcome, particularly the much-needed recruitment drive. Unless the government wishes to embark on a significant prison building programme — bear in mind that it is to date seeking planning permission for two new prisons only — something drastic must be done. The answer is a reduction in the prison population.

This may be anathema to law-and-order Conservatives, but Michael Gove, the former justice secretary, has set out a blueprint for reform. In a recent lecture, he said: “Overcrowded prisons are more likely to be academies of crime, brutalisers of the innocent and incubators of addiction rather than engines of self-improvement.”

For too long, successive British governments have focused on punishment rather than rehabilitation in prison. Ever since Michael Howard, the hardline former Tory home secretary, declared in 1993 that “prison works”, sentences have been more severe and conditions have deteriorated.

Mr Gove correctly observed that prisons should focus on detaining the most dangerous criminals. The protection of the public should count far more than the misguided clamour for heavier custodial sentences. If prisoners demonstrate good conduct and self-improvement in prison there is no reason why the nature and length of their sentence could not be commuted in the public interest.

The state of British prisons today is intolerable. It is time for a fresh approach. Ms Truss must show she is up to the job. Without action, the prisons and the public will be condemned to further cycles of violence.


Meanwhile, here's the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies covering the scandal of Dame Louise Casey's Troubled Families project:- 

Reaction to damning troubled families report

The publication by the influential House of Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC) of a report into the Troubled Families Programme is 'a complete dressing down' for the Government, the Centre's Deputy Director has said. His comments came in advance of a summit the Centre is holding next month to assess the purpose and impact of the controversial Troubled Families programme.

The main criticisms of the programme and the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) are:
  • False claims were made about the success of the programme, including the claim that the 99 per cent of families had been 'turned around'.
  • The claim that the scheme had saved net £1.2 billion was not true, as it did not account for the costs of delivering the programme.
  • The payments by results aspect of the programme 'risks incentivising quantity over quality' according to the PAC chair, Meg Hillier.
  • There was a self-evidently perverse incentive for local authorities to claim success, based on the manipulation of national datasets.
  • The DCLG had been 'evasive' when explaining the reasons for the one year delay in publishing the commissioned evaluation of the programme.
  • The DCLG 'was unable to provide assurance... that it would be able to evidence a statistically significant impact of the programme in the future'.
The Centre's deputy Director, Will McMahon said:
This report is a complete dressing down for those, in Downing Street and Whitehall, who commissioned and led the development of the 'troubled families' programme. In Parliamentary terms, it is about as damning as it gets. The whole programme was born of a shotgun marriage between the need for a government response to the 2011 riots, following the financial collapse and austerity, and the desire to point the finger at the usual suspects. The only mystery is why the PAC did not call for the whole programme to be binned given that there is no evidence that it has had, or will have, any positive impact whatsoever.

This from Civil Service World website amply demonstrates just how sneaky government is in trying to cover up the bad news:- 

DCLG blasted over Troubled Families report delays and "tick box" approach

The Public Accounts Committee has said it was “unacceptable” for an evaluation of government’s Troubled Families programme to be published over a year after the communities department received a draft copy.

The Troubled Families programme was launched by ministers in 2012 before being granted a £900m extension in 2013, and sees central government give councils up to £4,000 to identify and "turn around" families with entrenched social problems including unemployment, domestic abuse and truancy.

A evaluation of the programme, commissioned by the department in 2013, “was unable to find consistent evidence that it had any significant impact at this stage,” according to a Public Accounts Committee report published on Tuesday.

This evaluation was due to be published in late 2015, and the department received a draft version in October 2015. But DCLG did not publish a final version until October 2016, although part of the report was leaked to the BBC in August 2016.

The report describes this delay as unacceptable, and also criticises the department for choosing short-term measures to track a programme aimed at tackling deep-rooted social problems. Committee chair Meg Hillier said of this focus on short-term measures: "A tick in a box to meet a prime ministerial target is no substitute for a lasting solution to difficulties that may take years to properly address."

Hillier was also clear that officials should not consider the MPs' comments on the delay in publishing the evaluation as a simple “slap on the wrist about Whitehall bureaucracy”.

“Let me assure them that given the ambitions for this programme, the implications for families and the significant sums of money invested, it is far more serious than that," she said. "But it is particularly important with a new initiative that there is transparency so that the government can learn and adapt the programme. The department has undermined any achievements the government might legitimately claim for its overall work in this area.”

The report adds: “The department was evasive when explaining the reasons for this delay, furthering the impression that government is reluctant to be open and transparent about the Troubled Families programme."

A spokesperson for the government said the programme had "enabled local authorities to expand and transform the way local services work with families". But of course, there will always be lessons to learn and we have already made significant improvements to the second stage of the programme," they added. We will look carefully at the evidence to find out how we can improve the programme further to help some of the most vulnerable people in our society.”

DCLG perm sec Melanie Dawes told MPs at an evidence hearing earlier this year that the delay in finalising and publishing the report was due to concerns about data quality. An independent academic was commissioned to review the work before it was published.

The department also told MPs that the evaluation was an ambitious piece of statistical analysis that had not previously been attempted, and that evaluators had to work with poor quality data because the programme was still in its early stages.

The National Institute for Economic and Social Research, which led work on a part of the evaluation looking at the national impact of the programme, disputed both of those assertions. 

The evaluation had six strands which looked either at financial benefits, national impact or changes in the delivery of services to troubled families. Although it found no consistent evidence that the programme has had any significant impact so far, there was evidence of good practice stemming from the programme, including changing the way local authorities work with families and allowing them to support more people.

There was also evidence that families taking part in the programme were more confident, reporting that they felt better about their lives and the direction they were taking. However, the evaluation could not directly link these improved outcomes to the Troubled Families programme, and the department was not able to assure the committee that it would provide evidence of a significant impact in the future.

The report also urges the department to review its payment-by-results mechanism, after the evaluation found evidence that the framework incentivised local authorities to move families quickly through the programme “without providing the support necessary to tackle deep rooted problems.” There were also reports that some authorities had used national databases to identify families who had experienced positive outcomes and retrospectively define these as ‘troubled families’ in order to claim payments.

The committee also criticised DCLG for its use of the term “turned around” when discussing results of the programme, saying this was misleading “as the term was only indicative of achieving short-term outcomes under the programme rather than representing long-term, sustainable change in families’ lives".

MPs said that in future DCLG “should ensure that the terminology it uses to communicate the achievements of the Troubled Families programme gives an accurate depiction of how disadvantaged families make progress”.


  1. Both the Howard League and FT say: send fewer people to prison. But neither suggest what we do with law breakers instead of sending them to prison. There is no adequate analysis in either article. No one concerned about law and order is going to be persuaded by the "send fewer people to prison" unless an alternate is spelled out.

  2. Probation Officer21 December 2016 at 07:37

    The alternative is Probation Orders managed by a well resourced Probation Service. Kick out the private probation companies, stop giving probation authority to the polices, stop offloading probation work to charities, end the central government control of probation and separate probation from the prison service. All the articles above need to go the further mile and state this clearly.

    1. Couldn't agree more 7.37 and this is the right thing to do for society but who would feed the greedy fat cat privateers then. The Government is corrupt and has paid its financial backers with public service revenues. There isn't one utility, rail service, prison or CRC that is a success. The evidence of privatisation of public services speaks for itself

  3. The police fired the shots that started the riots when they killed an unarmed Mark Duggan. Presumably when African Americans riot it's because they, too, come from the criminal class.

  4. How perverse for the progressives that the explosion in prison numbers was orchestrated by a Labour government, just as the same happened under Clinton's democrats. You were less likely to go to prison under Thatcher than Blair.

    1. How perverse is it that fringe rightists use the word "progressive" as a term of abuse?

  5. Leftists can be Stalinist and regressive - just look at what's happening around free speech at UK universities. So, no surprise really about the rise in prison numbers.