Prison crisis: Cameron brands his own record 'shameful'

It’s hard to get your head around David Cameron's speech on prisons today. After ignoring prisons for years, he will admit that they are "scandalous" and should "shame us all".

It's as if someone else had been in charge of them. It must have escaped Cameron's notice, but he has been prime minister since 2010, during which the prison system has undergone an almost unparalleled period of deterioration. So if we must all be ashamed, perhaps he should be most ashamed of all.

Last year's outcomes in prisons were the worst for a decade. "You were more likely to die in prison than five years ago," the prison inspector wrote in his 2015 report. "More prisoners were murdered, killed themselves, self-harmed and were victims of assaults than five years ago." Suicides fell slightly, from 88 to 76, but they were still 40% higher than in 2010. Self-harm among male prisoners was a third higher than 2010.

Back in those early sunny days of the Coalition, Cameron put Ken Clarke in charge of the Ministry of Justice. He proceeded to do some very sensible things. He warned that the prison population could not keep on growing indefinitely as it had under Labour and that it made no sense to continue locking up illiterate non-violent offenders.

The traditional attack came, from the right-wing tabloids and Tory backbenchers. Cameron did not protect him. Instead, he backed down in the face of backbench demands and installed Chris Grayling, who ran a mind-bogglingly wrong-headed penal policy.

Grayling paid no attention to experts and overruled prison governors themselves by putting in place a tough new disciplinary system from Whitehall while overseeing deep departmental cuts. It was exactly the disaster the experts predicted it would be.

Throughout this period I was repeatedly told by those close to No10 that Cameron just wasn't interested in prisons. To be fair, prime ministers rarely are. This is the first speech by one of them in 20 years. He seemed completely unmoved by the appalling deterioration in standards under Grayling's watch. Now, apparently, he has had a change of heart.

Who knows how this came about? Is he worried about fulfilling the message of his progressive conference speech? Has Michael Gove successfully lobbied for change? In all likelihood, it's both. The reasons why don't really matter, but the proposals do.

Cameron's chief solution is to devolve decision-making powers to prison governors, with six 'reform prisons' to get the power to run themselves and set their budgets by the end of the year and a roll-out to half of all the institutions by 2020. They'll also publish league tables with performance data on measures like reoffending.

Lib Dem David Laws will chair a new social enterprise on getting top graduates into prison education. The prison education budget of £130 million will be protected, although it's not clear if that means the Treasury is reducing the level of Ministry of Justice cuts or whether the department will simply be told to find the savings elsewhere.

This is all good, but insufficient.

The devolution idea is a fine one. Governors know more about what works in prison than secretaries of state. The punishment regime installed by Grayling was irritating at best to governors, who had to enforce a meaningless and demoralising disciplinary system so the secretary of state could win a favourable review in the Daily Mail. Devolution will allow them to scrap all that and make other small but significant changes, like on the phone system.

We know from studies going back four decades that maintaining relationships is key to reducing reoffending, but phone calls from prison are made prohibitively expensive. "It's heart wrenching," a former prisoner told me recently. "You need to talk. You've got a cold-hearted environment inside. You need communication with the outside and you're denied that. And for what? For the sake of reducing costs."

But even with these sensible ideas, Cameron will not be able to enact his reform of prisons unless he is prepared to undertake at least one of two unpalatable ideas. Firstly, fewer people need to go to jail and, secondly, the budget cuts need to stop.

The MoJ has been told to reduce its administrative budget by 50% within five years, with 15% cuts in the prison and court budgets specifically. It's the deepest cut of any Whitehall department with over £5 billion annual budgets. And that comes on top of existing harsh savings. The number of full-time public sector prison staff fell by 29% between March 2010 and December 2014.

At the same time, the prison population continues to skyrocket. When the chief inspector of prisons analyses the ever-increasing levels of violence, it is this disconnect between rising inmate numbers and falling budgets which he singles out for blame.

As he wrote in his last annual report:

"It remains my view that staff shortages, overcrowding and the wider policy changes described in this report have had a significant impact on prison safety."

The justice select committee came to the same conclusion, saying:

"We believe that the key explanatory factor for the obvious deterioration in standards over the last year is that a significant number of prisons have been operating at staffing levels below what is necessary to maintain reasonable, safe and rehabilitative regimes."

Most prisoners you speak to spend the entire day in a cell. Not only do we fail to educate them, or train them, or get them into a work regime which they might continue once they're outside, or make sure they maintain the family connections which make reoffending less likely. We also actively put them in a situation which aggravates and demoralises them.

As a recent report into the young offenders' institute in Aylesbury found:

"In addition to the more predictable causes of violence, the long periods of lock up and inactivity most prisoners experienced caused frustrations that contributed to the likelihood of violence and aggression."

They spend that time in a cell because there are not enough staff to take them out for activities. You often hear of prisons with a really good prison library - but without enough staff to actually take inmates to it. Without the staff, everything is meaningless. There is no true prison reform unless you can improve the staff-to-inmate ratio.

That requires either protecting budgets or reducing the numbers going to jail – or preferably both. In truth, there is no reason non-violent criminals should go to jail unless they are persistent offenders.

But it takes political bravery to make that point as prime minister. As soon as you do, Tory backbenchers and the right-wing tabloids will come for you. And right now, Cameron has a tenuous enough relationship with them over Europe that he surely does not fancy the prospect of opening up another flank.

The prime minister's record on prisons suggests he does not have much political bravery in this area. But without it, today's speech will be just tinkering at the edges.

Everything you need to know about Cameron's EU deal in five minutes

So Cameron's got his deal, has he?

He's got a deal, whether it's the one he said he wanted back in 2013 is another matter. There's loads of stuff left by the wayside, like an 'emergency break' on immigration, or 'repatriation of competences', or the social chapter, or a veto on Eurozone policy. Cameron's been hammering away at this for a couple of years and it looks like his demands have shrunk.

So what has he got?

Well there's four 'baskets'. Yeah, both Cameron and Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, insist on calling them baskets. No-one knows why. Some of them have nothing but a pile of promises in them, some of them have concrete policy. In order of vacuousness, they're: competitiveness, the Eurozone, subsidiarity and immigration/benefits.

Competitiveness is the most vacuous? Who'd have thought.

Quite. There'll be all sorts of declarations committing Europe to competitiveness, but there's no mention of an actual plan. That may or may not be a problem, depending on your perspective. The Centre for European Reform argued this week that Europe actually is pretty efficient, or at least many of its member states are. You can agree with that or not – but whatever your view, there's nothing in that agreement which would shake up the status quo. Love it or loathe it, things look like they'll carry on mostly as before.

What's this Eurozone stuff?

This has been bothering Cameron and George Osborne for a while. Their fear is that Eurozone rules, for instance on financial services, can go through for the Eurozone and affect the position of the City, but without Britain having any power to control it. Once upon a time he wanted a British veto, but now he's given up on that. It’s not entirely clear what he demanded instead though. At least with the veto you knew what he wanted, even if he was never going to get it. There are several core principles laid out in the Tusk letter, but they're all already the case. There's not much to see here really.

So where does that leave the Eurozone question?

Nowhere really. Europe had already recognised that it was developing a two-speed system of core Eurozone countries committed to further economic and political integration on one hand and then everyone else on the other. That's still the case. There are plenty of areas where this situation could become really troublesome. Britain fears a caucus of Eurozone countries outvoting everyone else in the European Council. It’s a valid concern but it's hard to see how you could really prevent it. If there are big ideas to do so they haven't been presented yet. Maybe they'll pop up in the coming days.

So far it's zero out of two. Has Cameron actually got an EU deal or not?

Kind of. The next two sections have a bit more substance.

What's next? Subsidiarity? What even is that?

It's an old Catholic term for a form of devolution – basically that decisions should be taken at the most local possible level. The EU has this too. But eurosceptics typically argue that, as a big transnational organisation, it sucks up more and more power for itself.

So what has Cameron secured here?

A red card system. There was already a yellow card system, and now there's a red card one.

You what?

OK, look. To explain that we're going to have to do something really grubby and unusual. We’re going to have to look at how European law is made.

Please don’t do that.

I'll make it as painless as possible. Imagine a triangle. The points of the triangle are The European Commission, the European parliament and the Council of Ministers. A European law starts with the European Commission.

Where do they get the idea from?

Consultation with national governments. These guys are always flying about to European capitals and having chats with officials in relevant ministries about whether they envisage legislation on a given subject. Or they talk to a minister's official while they’re in Europe for a meeting. The Commission is a weird entity. It’s not like a government and it's not quite like a civil service. It’s weak and powerful at the same time and a lot depends on the personality of the person running it and individual commissioners. But fundamentally, it only proposes ideas - it doesn't decide them.

So who does decide on them?

The other two points of the triangle. First, it goes to the European parliament. A specialist committee writes up a report and then MEPs vote on it. Very often they'll want changes from the Commission proposal. The Commission will then say whether it can make them. Usually they do so. Sometimes there's a bit of back and forth. Then it goes to the Council of Ministers.

What's that?

These are meetings of ministers from the EU's member states. So somewhere in Europe there's an education council which Nicky Morgan sits on, or a health council which Jeremy Hunt sits on.

Poor Europeans

Precisely. It’s OK though, ministers will often just send their officials to represent them. So those councils meet to chat over developments in their remit and look at any legislation which comes under their purview. They vote and then parliament takes the final vote.

Purview. Very posh. So what's this got to do with subsidiarity again?

Well subsidiarity is supposed to be embedded into every stage of that process. The commission forms a judgement about whether a law is consistent with the principle of subsidiarity. Parliament then does the same. They can say the principle of subsidiarity has been breached and, if necessary, take it all the way to the European court of justice. Members of the Council of Ministers can do the same.

OK so what’s this yellow card thing?

The yellow card system was developed under the Lisbon treaty. If a third or more national parliaments say a law contradicts the subsidiarity principle it goes back to be reconsidered. They can eventually take this to the court of justice. But in truth it’s really rare. It’s happened twice so far.

So what has Cameron secured?

A red flag.

That sounds impressive.

It does, doesn't it? But then when your yellow card isn’t used one might question how much use the red one will be. It states that if 55% of national parliaments object, the plan goes back. But what happens then? Does it die, or is it like under the current system, where they merely have to think again? Tusk's language is predictably vague. Principles will be "duly taken into account" and then "appropriate arrangements" will be made.

This is all a nonsense isn't it?

Probably. You can look at it two ways: either the EU is so good at respecting subsidiarity that objections are very rarely made or it is so devious in preventing objections that hardly any are able to emerge. But either way, it's hard to see that this red card system will be significantly different to what already exists.

Dear God are we nearly done? I thought you said this was going to take five minutes.

I lied. I thought it would make a more compelling headline. Saying 'everything you need to know about Cameron's EU deal in seven minutes' sounds rubbish. There's just the benefits and immigration bit to go.

Get on with it.

This is the area where Cameron has arguably achieved the most. Most analysts thought he'd only be allowed to block migrant benefits for two years and that anything more would be considered discrimination. It looks like they’ve done a deal where he can limit benefits for four years, on the condition that a graded system allows them to increase the benefits they get throughout that period. It’s a pretty major win.

Will it limit EU immigration?

Not in the slightest. Study after study has found that immigrants don’t come to Britain to claim benefits. They come to work. But it's still the meatiest Cameron proposal and most people would probably consider it largely fair.

Won't eastern European countries cause a stink about it?

Yes. The plans needs to be accepted by everyone at a European Council meeting. That's like one of the Council of Ministers meetings but for the heads of state and governments – prime ministers, presidents and all that. Poland, which is one of the influential mid-level European powers, is pretty angry about this. But Cameron is in Warsaw now trying to offer something in return for their support. In all likelihood he'll agree to press for Nato troops to be stationed in Poland to guard against Russia. Cameron will be hoping he doesn't need to offer one of these little bonbons to all the EU's member states.

Who else is a threat to the plan?

Well, funnily enough, Portugal has been very vocal in its criticism. It has a left-wing eurosceptic government, so they're not too supportive of cutting benefits or immigration and they don’t much care if Britain falls out of the EU.

Can Cameron offer them anything?

Not really, but the chances are they won't want to waste valuable political capital digging their heels in on this one. When it comes to the crunch, Cameron is likely to get his plan through.

Except that the plan is largely empty.


Well this has been fun.

Imagine spending two years negotiating it. But anyway, all we’ve really talked about here is if Cameron has got what he wanted. That's the wrong question, really. This is more about internal Conservative politics than it is Britain's relationship with Europe. The right question is: will it be enough to get Tory MPs to support him?

Will it?

If you are a eurosceptic out of principle, there's nothing here that will change your mind. If you're more pragmatic, it’s possible it would convince you. But really, it's pretty tepid stuff. Cameron will need all his charm and influence to get them on board.

Watch: EU migrants speak out about living in the UK


Gove has basically admitted the Tory attack on human rights is dead

For once, we learned something in a committee hearing. Firstly, that the consultation paper on the repeal of the Human Rights Act will be published soon. And secondly that it will be, to all intents and purposes, dead on arrival.

Michael Gove's appearance in front of the EU justice sub-committee saw him admit outright that the government has no intention of pursuing the nuclear options it had once boasted of. We won't be leaving the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR), upon which the Human Rights Act is based. We will be keeping all the rights within it. But there will be a couple of modifications: firstly, on British troops serving abroad during a conflict, and secondly to tilt the balance of rights more towards a British legal tradition, for instance by emphasising free speech over privacy. What that means is anyone's guess. Gove himself seemed entirely unconvinced by what he was saying. But he accepted readily the chair's description of the changes as a gloss.

It’s quite a turn around. In October 2014, the Tories published a paper on the Human Rights Act which was aggressive, radical and almost entirely legally illiterate. If enacted, it would have meant a British exit from the ECHR – an almost unthinkable move given its importance in international human rights standards and our own role as its parent. Then they published a really quite moderate manifesto commitment, like an angry drunk waking up bashfully in the morning. And then they won an election and it was back on the booze again with a full-blooded attack on human rights and promises of action within 100 days. Now, once again, it is the mouse and not the lion. It is absurd, but it is a much better absurdity than the alternative.

Everything you need to know about the Tories' Human Rights Act attack in five minutes

Gove is an intelligent and erudite man who plainly enjoys the constitutional and legal arguments. But even he looked unconvinced by himself today. His reasoning took three forms:

Firstly, although he could not list anything that actually needed changing in the legislation, there was a "perception" that human rights had become a plaything of foreign criminals rather than a legal shield to guarantee the protection of British citizens. This needed to be addressed.

Secondly, he downplayed the relevance of the ECHR and the Human Rights Act. The British commitment to human rights existed before the Human Rights Act was published in 1997, he insisted. Canada was a decent human rights respecting nation, despite the fact it was not a member of the ECHR. It therefore followed that we can repeal the Human Rights Act without risking our reputation or our principles.

Finally, he insisted several times that the changes would be very small. Nothing worth getting upset about.

All of these points fail on the basis of his own reasoning, except for the third, which raises all sorts of other questions.

The first is a public relations argument, not a legal or political argument. It does not explain why the Human Rights Act needs repealing or even amending. It explains why we should do more to explain how the Act works, but that is not something Gove is undertaking to do. There is an unpleasant irony to hearing a Conservative justify repeal on the basis of public perception when Conservatives – in parliament and the press – have themselves done so much to misrepresent the Act to the public in the first place.

The second argument fails to distinguish between the context of an action and the action itself. Britain's commitment to human rights was not questioned on the basis that we did not have a Human Rights Act before the Human Rights Act existed, for the simple reason that the Human Rights Act did not exist. Canada is not criticised for not signing up to the ECHR for the simple reason that it is not in Europe. It would plainly be quite different for Britain to repeal the Human Rights Act now than it would have been when it did not exist. If this sounds like the garbled nonsense of a madman, it is because that is the logical level upon which Gove's arguments are being formulated.

But even if none of that were true, Gove's logic ignores the very perception he was only moments before treating as so important. It is plainly the case that any other country wanting to water down its human rights law would point to Britain – still seen as a world leader in human rights – doing the same. Gove said Britain's Human Rights Act had not prevented Putin doing what he liked. That's true, but you can be damn sure Putin will use our repeal of the Act to justify himself if we do. Tyrants around the world are already doing the same thing. Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta cited the Tory attack on human rights just days before appearing before the International Criminal Court in the Hague on charges of crimes against humanity. It’s not a matter of debate that it lowers the perception of Britain's commitment to human rights. It is a matter of fact. And honestly, when you are taking it upon yourself to repeal a piece of legislation called the Human Rights Act, it’s not a matter of fact which requires much substantiation.

The third argument falls apart on the basis of comparison with its repercussion. As Gove was informed during the committee hearing, the creation of a British bill of rights will see an almighty squabble with Scotland and Wales and the need to rewrite parts of the Northern Ireland Good Friday agreement. The Northern Ireland part is definite. The Scottish and Welsh part is currently unclear. Gove said the matter was neither reserved for Westminster nor devolved to Scotland. So where does it reside then, you might ask. On Mars? In Papua New Guinea? The justice secretary was told that it was like saying someone was a little bit pregnant. "If you can imagine a state of permanent pregnancy, that's what we have," he replied.

But regardless of the constitutional reality, or lack of it, Gove accepted it would cause an almighty fuss and that the SNP would look to maximise that fuss. That raises the question of why someone would go to all that trouble and take all that risk  - "unravelling [the] constitutional knitting" as he himself put it - for what he admits is just a gloss on the existing law. Gove's answer was to say that people might draw their own conclusions about the SNP causing so much trouble for so little. Well fine, but they may also draw their own conclusions about the Tory party too, if it is willing to put Britain's vulnerable constitutional arrangements at risk for something they themselves admit is such a minor change.

It appears the main risk to Britain's human rights laws has passed. Whatever comes out in that consultation paper won’t be the nuclear option the Tories had hinted at. But it will still do all sorts of damage, both to Britain's constitutional arrangements and its international reputation. And the minister can’t even explain why he's doing it


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