Friday, 19 January 2018

Liverpool's squalid prison

A couple of years ago I was invited to a posh lunch held in a prison in Surrey.  I can't now remember its name but it ran a training scheme to enable its inmates to qualify for work in the restaurateur industry. The food was good, served very civilly (though the "waiters" had an astonishing number of tattoos on their arms) and I understand the scheme was and still is reasonably successful

In the entrance hall of the prison was a plaque quoting these words by Winston Churchill:

The mood and temper of the public in regard to the treatment of crime and criminals is one of the most unfailing tests of the civilisation of any country. 

The quotation is from a speech made by Churchill in 1910, when he was Home Secretary of the Liberal government.   More details of the speech can be found here.

I've no means of knowing whether the UK's prison conditions in 1910 would have qualified us as civilised - I suspect not- but at least the recognition and intention were there.

Today's  report on the conditions in Liverpool prison (identifying prisoners living with "rats, cockroaches, damp, dirt, damaged windows with jagged glass in the frames, and filthy or leaking toilets".) demonstrates that, a century and more later, we should certainly fail now.

It cannot be said too often and too loudly that the punishment of prison is deprivation of liberty and that is all.  It does not include bullying, beating-up or living conditions so squalid that they would be  below the minimum standard acceptable "outside."

Some figures given in an article by Chris Tilbury in the January 2018 issue of Prospect show that these unacceptable conditions are not confined to Liverpool, and that overcrowding is a significant, perhaps the most significant, factor

Prison numbers in the UK have increased as follows:

Mid 1950s..................20 000
Late 1980s...................40 000
1997...........................60 000 (this was the year Labour won the election and remained in office for 13 years) 
2010...........................88 000 (almost a 50% increase on 1997 - Blair et al being "tough on crime." )

England and  Wales have the highest per capita incarceration rate in Western Europe:  about 150 per 
100 000 population, more than double the Scandinavian rate  Along with overcrowding this has led to a   staff : inmate ratio of of 1:30 rather than the recommended ideal of 1:10  

The local prison for my area, Leeds, (locally known as Armley,)  is the third most overcrowded  of the prisons in England and Wales, at 169% of capacity.  The most overcrowded is Swansea at 175%.

Such overcrowding is almost certainly a contributory cause to some of these statistics (for England and Wales,) comparing 2010 and 2016.

                                                                   2010                                 2016

Suicides                                                           58                                   199  
Recorded incidents of self-harm                  26 979                              40 000  
Recorded assaults on prison staff                  2 848                                6 844
Recorded inmate-on inmate assaults            11 244                              19 088

Tilbury's article is entitled "I predict a riot."

Clearly something pretty drastic must be done if we are to enter, or re-enter, the ranks of civilised society.  University Departments of Criminology are presumably brimful of suggestions.  My own, inexpert, ones are:

  • drastically cut down the numbers sent to prison.  There is little point in sending someone to prison who is not a danger to society if at liberty.  
  • abolish mandatory and minimum sentences.  Expert judges and informed jurors are in the best position to make decisions appropriate to each individual case.
  • beef-up the Probation Service, (and take it back into the public sphere, along with the privatised prisons.  Profit-maximisation should have no place in the sphere of personal liberty)
  • reverse the 22% austerity cut in the service, enabling both keeping the physical facilities in decent condition and  pay rates to attract and retain qualified and experienced prison officers.
  • spend lavishly on the prison education service.
  • and just as lavishly on the medical services, especially on mental health.
Any extra money spent now will reap benefits in the future.   

It was a Tory minister who said that "prison is an expensive way of making bad people worse." 

 It is estimated that re-offending at present costs between £9bn and £13bn a year.  So we need to spend now both to reduce future costs and pass "one of the  most unfailing tests of the civilisation of [our] country." 


Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Carillion - some layman's questions.

I am neither an accountant nor a lawyer - just a jobbing teacher of economics - so these questions may appear naive, but I haven't as yet seen them answered adequately in the media reports so far.

1.  What is the involvement of the accountancy firms (KPMG in this case I believe)   Somebody presumably audited the annual accounts and should have been able to give ample warning that the conglomerate  was heading for insolvency if it continued to trade in its current fashion.

2.  Why is the ousted chief executive to continue to receive his £660 000 annual salary  until  the autumn of this year?  Surely if Carillon is unable to pay what it owes to its myriads of sub-contractors it shouldn't be allowed to continue lashing out vast sums to a failed executive?

3.  Carillion paid a dividend to its shareholders quite recently*  How much would this be in total?  I suppose that there's no chance of "clawing back" this money, but should not the Directors who authorised the dividend be arraigned for criminal negligence, or for deliberately deceiving the public?  "Somebody ought to be summonsed," as "was decided upon"  in Albert and the Lion. (Stanza 15)

4. What's the role of the Competition and Markets Authority (successor to the Competition Commission, in turn successor to the  Monopolies and Mergers Commission) in all of this?  Why have multi-tasking conglomerates, not just Carillion, but also G4s, Serco, etc been allowed to expand their range of activities so that the choice for  issuing public service contracts becomes severely limited and the firms themselves effectively become "too big to fail."

5.  How can it be that the pension fund has a deficit of half a billion pounds or more?  Surely funds put into pension funds are, or should be, ring-fenced so that unscrupulous takers-over cannot get their hands on them. Abuse of this nature goes back at least to the 1980s and the affair of Robert Maxwell and the Mirror Group Pension Fund. There's been ample time to sort it out..

In addition to  these questions I willingly subscribe to the bewilderment  expressed in parliament and elsewhere as to way the government continued to award  contracts to Carillion after three public  profit-warnings indicted that the company was in trouble;  to question why such conglomerates continue to be given contracts after spectacular failures (G4s on security for the Olympics, Virgin on the East Coast railway, to name but two); what companies such as Carillion are supposed to know abut managing schools, hospital beds and operating theatres, providing school and hospital meals,as well as their core function of building and construction?

And why the profit-maximising private sector should be involved at all in personal services such as prisons, care of the elderly and public medical care
And above all, why the powers that be, in spite of all the evidence, continue to assume that the private sector is more efficient (however defined) than the public sector.  Not to mention the contribution that could be made by mutuals, co-operatives and not-for-profit organisations.

Post script (added  17th January) 

*There's some information on this in today's Guardian.  Recent dividends to shareholders have amounted to £80m (2015); £82.7m (2016) and £83m (2017)  Not all together enough to plug the hole in the pension fund, now estimated to be £580m, but would reduce it by getting on for a half.

To this could be added the bonuses which the directors awarded themselves..  I haven't yet seen a figure for this: just that the directors altered the company's rules so that the bonuses could not be clawed back  as a result of financial failure.

In my upbringing such behaviour would be imagined only in so-called Banana Republics.  It is shameful that it now seems to pass for normal behaviour among businessmen here.

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

UK's Conservatives emulate Ko-Ko

In Gilbert and Sullivan's opera The Mikado, Ko-Ko, the rather timid Lord High Executioner, explains the fact that he hasn't actually executed anyone as follows:

It's like this: When your Majesty says, 'Let a thing be done,'  it's as good as done - practically it is done - because your Majesty's will is the law.  Your Majesty says, 'Kill a gentleman' and a gentleman is told off to be killed.  Consequently that gentleman is as good as dead - practically he is dead - and if he is dead, why not say so?

Our government is following the same technique and, sadly, getting away with it.

The latest example is the much trailed cabinet reshuffle  in which Mrs May  would  re-assert her authority, strengthen the government and bring in vital new blood.

Informed opinion regards the whole exercise as somewhere between a fiasco and a shambles, with the new chair of the Conservative Party after all not being  the new chair of the Conservative party,  the major Brexiteers (Boris Johnson, David Davis and Liam Fox) remaining in post along with Philip Hammond and Amber Rudd, holders of two of the four "major offices of state,) the consummate failure, Jeremy Hunt, Secretary of State for Health, remaining in place and has his powers extended, and probably the most reasonable cabinet minister (for a Tory) comprehensive-school educated  Justine Greening,  gay Secretary for Education, who is unenthusiastic about grammar schools, kicked out.

Yet one spokesperson  after another comes on the airwaves to say, as though butter wouldn't melt in their mouths,  that the whole thing is a great success, the government is refreshed by oodles of new talent and much better reflects demography of the UK.

Ongoing over Christmas has been the crisis in the NHS (see previous post for more details) with ambulances queuing for hours at Accident and Emergency departments, patients without beds told they can have chairs and those with often painful conditions waiting for elective surgery told they can wait another month.  The minister in charge (see above), loudly predicted to be sacked, has his powers extended to include housing, and again spokesperson after spokesperson assures us that more money is being spent on the NHS than ever before, and anyway there isn't really a crisis becasue the government planned for it.

Then last month, after an emergency flight to Brussels, Mrs May was hailed in heroic terms for  concluding the first stage of the Brexit negotiations and enabling the discussions to proceed to the next phase.  The agreement was actually reached by the government caving in on each of its "red lines."  We are to remain "aligned" to the rules of the single market; we have agreed that the "divorce bill" should escalate from zero (Boris Johnson "they can whistle") to €20bn to €40bn,; and the jurisdiction of the ECJ over the UK is to continue at least for the time-being. (For more details see this post.)

Amazingly , is spite of these crass failings, and many others (I am fed up of hearing, against all the evidence, that Free Schools and Academies are driving up educational standards) the official opposition remain only neck and neck with the government in the opinion polls and we Liberal Democrats bounce along the bottom  with a pathetic 7%.

The sycophantic press has a lot to answer for, but more-so, the Labour Party, which  is offering no real opposition.  Rather, and shamefully,  they are actively supporting the destructive Brexit programme, and are too cowardly to propose, for example, an increase in personal taxation to enable the NHS to be adequately funded. Cravenly they are following what they imagine to be public opinion rather than attempting to lead it

Given the Liberal Democrats sad, and I hope temporary, lack of credibility, and the failure of the Greens, full of vitality and good ideas, to take off, we desperately need the Labour Party to grasp the opportunity  and put put some real fight.

Like Arthur Greenwood in his time, Jeremy Corbyn needs to get off the fence and "Speak for England."  (well, the UK actually.)

Thursday, 4 January 2018

NHS, Crisis(?) and Lord Kerslake

This week "crisis" measures have been announced to enable the National Health Service to cope with its  now annual near collapse..  The British Red Cross declared last year's situation a "humanitarian crisis" and this year's is said to be even worse.

The measures imposed to cope with the increasing number of "black alerts"  (hospitals admitting officially that they cannot cope with the demands on them) include:
  •  outpatient appointments cancelled
  • day surgery cancelled
  • non-urgent surgery planned for this month postponed to February (or later)
  • penalties for having mixed wards suspended.
The minister responsible, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, explained on BBC 2's Newsnight last night that there was no crisis because he had planned for the situation. He then went on to repeat his mantras of  how much more each year the government is spending on the NHS and how this is much more than Labour used to spend.

Yes, of course the government is spending more, but it doesn't need  a degree in statistics or economics to understand that, with a growing population, more effective but more expensive drugs and procedures, and most of us (including me) living longer than expected,  there needs to be even more expenditure.

I'm surprised that the resignation of Lord Kerslake as Chair of the King's College Hospital NHS Foundation Trust (part of London's NHS provision) last month has not received more, and more prolonged, publicity.  Kerslake resigned becasue, he said,  " hospitals are being asked to agree to meet unrealistically demanding savings targets."

This is not just any old resignation by the chair of a large organisation who is out of his depth.  In his former manifestation as Sir Bob, Lord Kerslake was head of the Home Civil Service and as such the UK's top Mandarin, most experienced and skilled bureaucrat, the Sir Humphrey of all Sir Humphreys.  If he says that the tasks to be performed cannot be achieved with the resources available then they can't.

For years we have been deluged with tales of bureaucratic waste, possible efficiency savings, and organisational reforms which will enable  enable our public services to do "more with less."  Kerslake's resignation reveals the falsity of these claims.

As usual the price to be paid for this mendacity is borne by the poorest in society.  Those who can afford it (including me, though I haven't done so yet) can evade the shortage by "going private."  It's those without spare resources who have no option but to suffer.

And in this case much of the  suffering will  be literal rather than figurative.  Elective surgery involves such things as hip and knee replacements.  I've not so far  had or needed either, but understand that those who do are in constant pain.

OK says our government, you can endure for another month so we can implement our ideological policies of cutting back the state.

There is absolutely no need for the sufferers to endure this.  For most of my working life the standard rate of income-tax was around 33%.  It is presently only  20%.  A relatively minor tax increase, intelligently implemented, will enable us to afford all the resources the NHS needs to maintain an acceptable standard.

Actually finding the money is probably the least of the problems.  Brexit has so unsettled many skilled  practitioners from other EU countries  presently working in the NHS that they are leaving in droves, and recruitment  from the EU is becoming increasingly difficult.  And it will take time to educate and train suitable replacements form within the UK.

 But that's two other stories.

Friday, 29 December 2017

Why not "Be the Best"?

Another  piece of "silly season" news (see previous post) which has occupied the media over the holiday period is that the British Army has decided to drop the use of the recruiting slogan  "Be the Best" because Market research shows it to be " dated, elitist and non-inclusive."

Apparently this piece of market research cost around £500 000.

I cannot see why the slogan should  be regarded as either elitist or non-inclusive.  It is after all an aspiration rather than a claim that the army only "takes the best."  Surely, whatever our funciton, we should all be urged to at least try to "be the best" rather than be content with  mediocrity.

It is true, however that the phrase is dated, though in my view none the worse for that.

In my younger days I was a Boy Scout and then a Scout Leader.  There was, and, I'm happy to discover still is, a Scout Hymn,the first verse of which reads:
Now as I start upon my chosen way,
In all I do, my thoughts, my work, my play,
Grant as I promise, Courage new for me
To be the best, the best that I can be.
The hymn (which, incidentally doesn't mention any deity or any particular religion, as Scouting is an international movement regardless of "country, class or creed," as we used to put it) and the music to sing it to, was written  by Ralph Reader, who also wrote "Ging Gang Goo!" and choreographed the British Legion's annual Festival of Remembrance in the Albert hall for many years.

There are various versions of it on You-tube: my favourite is this, I suspect from the Philippines.

The hmm is sexist, in that it contains the wish to to "earn a place among my fellow men "but that doesn't seem to worry several  girls (some of them wearing head-scarves) who contribute to this version. In fairness to Reader, Scouting was for boys only in his day.

Getting back to the Army, I think the Army Education system for young people does a magnificent job. The Army Foundation College based in Harrogate takes in many dysfunctional young people (as well as many normally functioning ones from conventional backgrounds) who have often been brought up in care and failed to flourish in the ordinary school system, and enables them to become competent in academic as well as military skills.  Whether  it is right that they should take recruits  as young as 16 is another matter, but they certainly do an effective job in encouraging their charges to "be the best." Hats off to them.

Unfortunately the Army is not so good at looking after its personnel once their service is finished. A disproportionate number become rough sleepers, end up in prison, or have problems with their mental health.  They too deserve "the best" or at least something better than at present.

Tuesday, 26 December 2017

Christmas news nadir

Traditionally our silly season for news is August, when nothing much newsworthy is thought to be happening and so the pages and news channels are filled with all sorts of nonsense.  Maybe even "fake" news.

One lead story this Christmas has given August a close run for its title..

The announcement that, once we have left the EU our former blue British passport will be restored to its former glory was hailed by the Brexiteers as a stupendous achievement.

However, the small print indicates the move to be petty and pointless.

Our new passport will not have the hard covers of the pre-EU one, will be the same size as the current burgundy red one, have the same floppy covers, and contain the same gadgetry which enables it to be "read" by the machines used almost universally by immigration officials. And, shock horror, it may may  be in a different shade of blue.

To cap it all there never was any EU regulation that insisted we have a burgundy red cover: we could have had any colour we liked.

True progress would be to move towards such a level of international harmony and confidence that passports could be abolished completely, and, in the words of Labour's great post-war Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin, we could  ". . .buy a ticket at Victoria station and go where the bloody hell [we] liked" 

Members of the Schengen Agreement have made significant steps towards this, but Britain has been too timid to join.

This "achievement" by the Brexiteers is a petty and insignificant symbolic move in the wrong direction. In practice it will [probably lead to holders of the new document being placed in an even slower lane at passport control stations.

Weekly we are driven to wonder if our politics can get any more childish.

Thursday, 14 December 2017

Tidings of (modified) joy.

Well, maybe things are just taking a turn or the better.  The defeat of the Republican candidate  in the election for a senator for Alabama  shows that the US electorate might, just might, be beginning to see the light about the awfulness of President Trump's attitudes and policies.

Here in the UK the House of Commons has  defeated the May Government's arrogant attempt to force through whatever Brexit deal they achieve without any serious possibility of parliament's having any meaningful say. How the new situation will work out in practice is yet to be seen but the significance is that, at last, MPs are  beginning to flex their  muscles and make that point that "taking back control" means taking it back to parliament and not to an over-mighty executive.

The muscle-flexing is so far fairly timid, It has depended on the "left of centre" opposition - Labour, SNP, Liberal Democrats and the one Green being pretty united, with a handful of Tory MPs abstaining and only 11 having the guts to vote against the government.  However, this could be the turn of the tide - the event by which, after 18 months of timidity, MPs begin to think for themselves and do what they know to be right rather than slavishly obey their whips.

It really is astonishing that so few Conservative MPs, which their ostentatious posturing over the wonders of British institutions, traditions and values, are prepared to put the long-term interests of the country before short-term party advantage.  With our history of parliaments gradually wresting power from a mighty executive, (we even fought a civil war on it) how can they be so supine as to be willing to hand it back again?

I wonder how the events of the last two years or so would have played with our press and public opinion if a left-wing party in power had been hijacked by a handful of extremists and:

  • called a referendum on an issue which was dear to their own  ideology but not high on the priorities of most of the electorate;
  • failed to take any precautions to ensure a fair and honest debate;
  • declared a narrow result in their favour to be sacrosanct, in spite of the facts that the referendum was advisory only, many of the key facts on which they had argued were phoney and there were suspicions of illicit finance along with foreign interference in support of their case;
  • tried desperately to avoid parliament having any say in the implementation of the result;
  • fought the issue in court when objectors tried to invoke the "sovereignty of parliament;"
  • abused  the judges as "enemies of the people" when the courts decided against them;
  • took advantage of a supine opposition, terrified of press, to force the decision though parliament;
  • ploughed on regardless of the fact that  almost all informed opinion regarded their policy as hugely damaging to the future status of the country and welfare of its people:
  • used every device in their power, including blackening any opponents in their own party as well as in he opposition, as traitors and mutineers.
  • continued to make every attempt to avoid giving  parliament any meaningful say in the outcome of their policy.
There would be hell to play.

For example, way back in 1968, when Lord King, a press baron, decided that the country was dangerously "out of control" under Harold Wilson's Labour government, he called a secret meeting to plan to overthrow him and it and appoint Lord Mountbatten as the necessary "strong man."  The plan flopped when Mountbatten, who was present at the meeting, walked away as  he realised that what was being proposed amounted to treason.

What a difference a supine press makes