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Howard League blog · 23 May 2016

Reform prisons

Michael Gove’s plans include six ‘reform’ prisons and this concept has generated more heat than light.

Some commentators have expressed concern that it is the first step toward either privatisation or academisation. I don’t think this is the case.

Bear with me while I do a quick jog through the various structures developed for public services over the past couple of decades and see which might be in his mind for the long term. This is going to be a crude exercise because many of the structures are incredibly complex, but I hope I will make my point.

Gordon Brown and Tony Blair restructured the NHS so that most hospitals became trusts. This was a mechanism for them to raise funds from the market, often through PFI, that did not show up on central government books.

It was a bit of a wheeze to inject additional funding into the NHS without using taxpayers’ money. As we know, much of it has backfired as PFI has proved to be costly. But, the point is that the trust hospitals were not privatised, they remained in state control and ownership.

Similarly, when the probation service was restructured by Labour, the local services were set up as trusts, not privatised. They were overseen by boards with a chief executive and remained within the public sector.

Academy schools have been taken out of local authority control and sold to the public as giving headteachers and local people the  power to oversee schools. In fact this is nothing of the kind.

Academies are grouped into chains overseen by religious or business interests. They are still funded by the taxpayer and are not (yet) run for profit, but their accountability is far removed from the public and there are distinct elements of profiteering creeping into the school landscape. Their management is not local, not accountable to local people, but they are as yet still in the public sector.

The restructuring of the probation service by Chris Grayling was privatisation in tooth and claw. Most of the service was handed over to private companies for profit and they have been given an added incentive of additional profits if they hit targets.

Now for reform prisons. The immediate plans are to give governors additional discretion to run their institutions. We have yet to see the details in the forthcoming white paper. This could mean not having to comply with certain rules, having greater powers to allow home leave and temporary release, buying services like education, making changes to regimes.

The restructuring of the probation service by Chris Grayling was privatisation in tooth and claw.

Whilst this has been sold as the greatest prison reform since Victorian times, actually I think it is simply turning the clock back to when governors did have their own budgets but with a few extra bells on it.

In the long term, Mr Gove has indicated that he is thinking about prisons being cut free from NOMS and perhaps using a trust model, but I think this is more likely to use the trust hospitals or early probation models. This would also be part of the localism agenda so that prisons are more closely linked to their localities.

It is certainly a fragmentation of a national service but I don’t think it is privatisation. I have not heard that more prisons are to be handed over to the private sector; indeed, I think it more likely to be part of an ideological re-framing of the public sector as smaller units run more autonomously but funded by the taxpayer.

I may be wrong. There may be a quite different plan, but this would be a movement towards a completely different sort of prison system, quite dramatic enough I think.


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