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Howard League blog · 24 Jul 2017

Might it be time to hold ministers to account?

Most businesses and charities assess how effective they are being at delivering their objectives and they hold individuals to account. If staff do not deliver or do work that damages the business, they are dismissed. Indeed, in public service, people can be held accountable many years after they have left – look at Hillsborough.

Ministers, however, often get away with it.

Too many ministers are dumped on a department with no expertise or experience in the issue. They are desperate to make a mark to further their career. Some more than others, admittedly. The ones in a hurry push policies through against advice and they can do huge damage to the life of the nation.

Take the Ministry of Justice. There have been five secretaries of state in the last seven years. Some have done lasting damage. One in particular forced through an upheaval to the probation service that is now failing on a scandalous scale. There was no evidence that the restructuring would improve public safety, indeed all experts and staff issued dire warnings that splitting probation would put the public at risk. The reports on the last years of the unified public probation service showed it doing well. HM Inspector of Probation said a couple of weeks ago that the private companies were universally failing so badly that it would make no difference if they weren’t there.

At the same time, this minister was closing prisons, cutting the number of prison officers and doing nothing to reduce the number of people in prison. This meant that more prisoners were crammed into fewer prisons with not enough staff. The consequences are a deteriorating prison system where someone takes their own life every three days, violent assaults are an everyday occurrence, drugs are rife and crime is spilling from prisons into communities.

Despite all this, the secretary of state in question has simply moved on to another department.

Might it be time to hold ministers to account? We could put in place a system for assessing the success or failure of their initiatives. If they cost a lot and hurt people, they would at least have to apologise. That might concentrate the minds of the rest of them. I don’t want to stifle innovation, but I do want to stop vanity projects that damage the fabric of the nation being foisted on us all.


  • Neil Grigg says:

    Justice, and prisons in particular, are so often treated with the Victorian “throw away the key” (populist) approach that that until ministers do have accountability then that view will prevail. Successive non lawyer MoJ’s have compounded this terribly. Grayling was an ideological, ignorant bruiser and Truss hopeless and clueless in equal measure. Only Gove (surprisingly) had any desire to actually apply justice, before he became absorbed in Brexit. Today’s riot will not be the last as a consquence of very poor decisions, which will cost vastly more than they aimed to save.

  • Simon Kane says:

    No, it is not time. Of course, yes it is but no in the sense that this is long overdue! One day. I was told by a prisoner that it is not a justice system that operates in this country. It is a revenge system. However, as we all know, this costs the country a lot of money which could be saved and invested more sensibly.

  • Margaret Mills says:

    Of course they should be held to account They are supposed to be working for us

  • allison fackrell says:

    Yes I totally agree Ministers should be held to account . I have letters where a Prison Governor lied to the Inspector of Prisons and the Prime Minister thinks its ok , I have letters form the MOJ blaming my son for them missing he had a mental illness , I have letters saying my son is well and saying I am the one with the problem , the MOJ just ignore me , its as if they are so powerful nothing can touch them !! May be a few MOJ high ranking staff and some PM’s should do a week in a prison as an inmate , like the programs where they switch places. Until prison touched my life I didn’t realise how terrible and inhuman the system was . We need change and we need it now . My son has been subjected to the most imaginable things , if we are not rehabilitating and showing these people who to have a better life , whats the point in prison . In my profession if a child was left in a room 23 hours a day and feed food through the door and had to eat where it went to bathroom , was staved of human daily contact and warmth , then that child would be reformed from its parents care and thousands spent on giving that child a better life , yet thats how we treat prisoners , how can 2 government departments worked in such opposite ways !!

    • Kim Turner says:

      So true. I also had no idea how perilous our prisons/YOIs were to the people we incarcerate inside them. I truly believe that a legal precedent case should be raised which challenges the Govt’s ability to keep children safe in these places. Under their Duty of Care, they are failing these young people on a phenomenal scale. “Not one institution is safe for young people” Shame on those Ministers responsible for allowing this to continue. We need to be actively and loudly protesting about this. The public just don’t know.

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