Continuing with our theme of evidence to the Justice Committee's TR inquiry, yesterday's blog post flushed out mention of Phil Wheatley of NOMS fame and in particular a piece he wrote for the Guardian in December 2016 that we don't seem to have covered before. So, thanks go to the reader for bringing it to our attention and this is what he had to say:-
It took years of Tory cuts and wild policy swings to create this prisons crisis
The situation in jails is now so bad it can be resolved only by a prolonged period of stability and investment, and allowing managers to do their jobs.
The current crisis in our prisons is a matter of deep concern. It is an indictment of government policy in recent years, and will not be easily put right. It is vital that politicians understand and address what led us here if it is to be repaired. Without that, the crisis will deepen – with inevitable and dire consequences for prisoners, staff and the public.
I retired as chief executive of the National Offender Management Service (Noms) and director general of the Prison Service in June 2010, at which point the service was performing strongly. Suicides, escapes and serious incidents of disorder were at an all-time low, and the published statistics showed there had been more than 10% improvement in reoffending since 2000.
This was achieved despite the distraction of significant organisational upheavals initiated by ministers as they created and then reformed the National Offender Management Service.
The government’s unwillingness to fund the increases in the prison population that were driven by their obsession with pursuing populist law and order policies also caused problems. Ministers saw no problem with overcrowding to dangerous levels despite advice on the risks, making it necessary for me to refuse outright to comply with their wishes.
My successor, Michael Spurr, has faced even bigger challenges as a consequence of the severe budget reductions. This has been compounded by successive Conservative lord chancellors introducing their own radically different policies for prisons. Ken Clarke, the first lord chancellor in the coalition government, accepted a budget for justice that required substantial savings. He did so on the basis that it would be manageable if he both reduced the prison population and competitively tendered all public sector prisons over the lifetime of the government.
Just over two years later, David Cameron removed Clarke after political and tabloid press criticism of his proposals to reduce the prison population and his apparent unwillingness to be tough on prisoners.
Chris Grayling came next, with a brief to toughen up prison conditions without reducing the numbers and with no additional funding. The competitive tendering process was immediately abandoned. In its place, Grayling announced a programme of significant reforms across the prison and probation service.
The plans threatened the stability and safety of prisons but they were essential to meet the short-term political objective of managing within the planned budget while not reducing the prison population and not attracting tabloid criticism in the run-up to the 2015 election. It is a tribute to the skill of the Noms leadership and management that it delivered what Grayling required.
He was succeeded by Michael Gove, who charmed penal reformers by rubbishing most of his predecessor’s policies and making clear he had no taste for firm, centralised management. Ignoring the predicament prisons were in, Gove’s seductive policy vision was of liberal treatment for prisoners and freedom for individual governors to do their own thing.
Yet another major reorganisation of Noms was required: the third such upheaval in five years. Gove, of course, was gone before he had to take responsibility for the disruption caused both by his abandonment of Grayling’s policies and his abject failure to engage with their consequences.
Liz Truss now has the misfortune to inherit the operational disaster that is the direct result of these continued budget reductions and wild swings in government policy. The policies pursued by her predecessors have led to the loss of experienced prison managers and staff, too few prison officers of any sort, wages that make it difficult to recruit and retain staff, and a reduction in privileges and access to treatment interventions and regime activities that have been corrosive for prisoners. The situation is now parlous and will only be resolved by a prolonged period of policy stability and investment. It will take years to put right.
It is to Truss’s credit that she has quickly recognised that prison staffing levels are too low to maintain safety or security. It remains to be seen whether she also understands that prisons work best when they are not subjected to fluctuating political whims and have strong, effective management.
So far she has proposed league tables, more budgetary freedom for prison governors and accountability for hitting agreed performance targets, all of which is sensible and marks a return to the system we operated prior to 2010.
The organisational changes she is making are less encouraging. The process of recovery from the current crisis will require effective support services geared to meet the operational needs of prisons so that personnel, finance and procurement are integral to the management effort to resolve the problems faced. The minister however has transferred control of these services to the Ministry of Justice, so they will be managed by staff who have no experience of the operational challenges faced by prisons. It is highly likely that this will hamper the recovery effort.
There are no quick fixes that will easily rebuild the morale and confidence of staff. It is essential that ministers now refrain from whizzy political initiatives, and create a period of organisational and policy stability. This will allow the very competent managers of our prisons to concentrate on the core business of restoring order and constructive activity in our prisons.
This current crisis is a failure of major proportions for the government. Managing prisons is a difficult and highly skilled task that requires adequate resourcing, and a stable policy environment.
In the period since May 2010 the government has failed on both counts. The current leaders and managers of the Prison Service have struggled to deliver what has been required of them by politicians who have been told what risks they were running. The responsibility of ministers in bringing our custodial system to the brink of collapse needs to be understood and openly acknowledged if there is to be any chance of recovering from the current disaster.
Phil Wheatley was chief executive of the National Offender Management Service and director general of the Prison Service
On a completely different topic, but connected to the mention of Liz Truss, I see she's getting the blame for a key decision made when Lord Chancellor and in relation to the staggering cost of medical negligence claims against the NHS, up from £24billion in 2014 to an estimated £65billion in the future. This from the NHS Executive website:-
and I wasn't aware of this, highlighted as a need for reform:-
Repeal outdated clinical negligence law: A law that pre-dates the NHS (Section 2(4) of the Law Reform (Personal Injuries) Act 1948) requires all personal injury defendants to disregard the availability of NHS care when paying compensation. Patients who have been injured while receiving NHS treatment must be compensated on the basis that they will receive private treatment for life. This outdated legislation costs the NHS (which is often best placed to provide care to these patients) billions of pounds. The law should be changed so that defendants could compensate patients by paying the NHS and local authorities to provide damaged patients with specially designed public health and care packages. This would boost NHS funds for the benefit of all patients, including the majority needing long-term care and treatment for severe injury which has not resulted from negligence.