At the end of this month I will clear my metaphorical desk, hang up my metaphorical coat and leave my oh so real position of Home Secretary commentator for Backbench. Without a doubt since this website was founded the state of the UK has changed dramatically. The political, social and economic landscape of the country has transformed, to some degree, beyond recognition as we witness the deepest cuts to public services ever seen. With further reform of the education system set to continue, and the private sector to push forward on its path of taking on large parts of the previously public-sector led roles, we can all be sure that the next six months is going to be as contentious and, at least from the perspective of all the journalists here at Backbench, just as interesting as the last!
The state of the UK has been a varied one at the beginning of this calendar year, with further investigations at the BBC alongside greater divisions amongst the public and private sector. This, coupled with further convictions of the ‘Birmingham three’ and the announcement by the BNP that, after being bequeathed over £250,000 – they are back in the political arena, the future looks turbulent to say the least.
One of the biggest stories of the week was the publication of a study by the centre-right think-tank Reform that suggested private companies were better at running prisons that the public sector. This despite recent contracts being revoked, like that of G4S and the Wolds Prison in November of last year after an inspection by HM Inspectorate discovered “serious failings”, Reform said that there were less total escapes in private sector prisons as a whole – suggesting that this indicated a greater success of ‘private over public’. The report furthermore suggested that the financial flexibility of private prisons, within their 15 year fixed contracts delivered greater cost efficiency. On the surface, this report makes private prisons look very tempting as they seem to offer a better service at an essentially lower cost. What the report neglects to mention in detail however is the level of accountability public sector prisons offer. On the one hand private prisons are offering greater value for money, yet their budgets are not accountable to the National Offender Management Service like public prisons are. In public prisons, guards and offices are trained and gain skills, eventually resulting in a Custodial Care NVQ. These are life skills that are evidence of a benchmark of consistent quality care. This is unmatched in private contract prisons where no qualifications are guaranteed, national pay scales and agreement conditions can be overridden and are not subject to Freedom of Information Requests. This lack of accountability is worrying, suggesting that the private sector should not be subject to the same scrutiny or standards expected in public sector prisons.
Furthermore, I think we should draw on the report by the Institute for Government that suggested that comparing public and private contract prisons is based on little empirical evidence. The report also suggests that greater overcrowding in private sector contract prisons and the ability for private companies to pick and choose which prisons they take control of means that suggestions they are more ‘cost efficient’ than the public sector are often unfounded. I think this further suggests that the notions that private is always better than public is incorrect. If we want our prisoners to be safe whilst in prison, but also want to feel safe in our communities we must ensure we have a responsible and accountable prison service. A public sector-led, public sector based and public sector organised prison service.
This isn’t the only challenge facing the Justice Secretary and the UK over the next few months. The way we treat our prisoners – especially with the development of the Votes for Prisoners debate – is becoming an increasingly important issue. This isn’t the only issue that my successor in this prestigious journalistic position will have the pleasure of reporting on. Increased battles over the cost of energy, the relevance of juries in the criminal justice system, security opt-outs in the EU and the relevance and need for Twitter defamation cases – as led by Lord McAlpine will keep them, their laptops, their pencils and their notepads very busy!
Over the past year we’ve had the BBC attacked; Secret Courts ushered in and the possibility of Cameras in our court rooms up and down the land suggested. You can say many things about the job of critiquing every government policy, analysing every government u-turn and reporting on every policy launch but one thing is certain – it never (ever) gets boring.
Backbench Home Secretary