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JeremyBeecham.jpgJeremy Beecham on the government’s half-hearted attempts to resolve the UK’s prison crisis

The tragic events at Pentonville Prison in which one man was killed and two seriously injured are the latest evidence that our prison system is in crisis. 22 years ago, the then Conservative Home Secretary, Michael Howard, proclaimed that “prison works”. It didn’t then, and it most certainly doesn’t now.

Our prisons are desperately overcrowded and shockingly understaffed. Report after report from successive Chief Inspectors have highlighted the problems but the position has got worse – particularly since 2010.

The number of assaults on staff has increased from 3,000 to 5,500, with serious assaults going from 300 to 646 – and all in the past three years. Overall, assaults have risen by just under 30% to 22,195 in six years. Assaults with weapons on officers and other prisoners has increased from 1,474 to 3,958, sexual assaults from 137 to 300, and self-harming by 50% in the past two years to 34,586. Deaths in custody have also risen, by 100% since 2007; including 105 suicides in the last year.

In parallel with these disturbing increases, staffing has reduced. The past four years have seen a drop in numbers from 18,500 to just over 15,000, within which are worrying large reductions in both officer and operational support grades. 

The National Offender Management Service (NOMS) appears to be complacent about staffing, proclaiming, as reported by the Prison Officer’s Association that they have no difficulty in recruiting staff when officer numbers have fallen by 24%. As a result, NOMS is only able to recruit to the reduced numbers allowed by the government’s failure to fund the staff numbers required to ensure safety. Leaving little or no capacity to achieve progress towards fulfilling its oft declared intentions to transform rehabilitation.

This staff shortage can lead to a single prison officer looking after an entire wing, and to too few of them patrolling a prison’s perimeter. Thereby facilitating the transmission of the forbidden substances which fuel violence, self-harm or illness – as the recent TV documentary about Wandsworth Prison vividly, and shockingly, illustrated.

Justice Minister Lord Keene, answering questions yesterday from Lord Ramsbotham, myself and others, referred to the recent government announcement that 400 additional prison officers will be recruited. That is simply inadequate, given the staffing cuts in recent years and the massive problems the service faces.

We must remember that in one of the largest prison populations relative to population anywhere in the developed world, the UK has a very high percentage of inmates with one or more mental health problems and a history of poor educational attainment. Addressing these issues in overcrowded institutions where cells are all too often shared and prisoners too often confined for long periods is extremely difficult.

We clearly need to reduce prison numbers, which means, amongst other things, reducing the numbers on remand – a high proportion of which do not receive a custodial sentence. But we also need to look again at sentencing policy and the ability of the system to provide proper medical care and educational opportunities. Getting rid of the large old prisons, as Michael Gove wanted to, is a good idea; but building very large modern prisons is surely not the answer. They ought to be smaller, with more and better trained staff, and wherever possible sited in reasonable proximity to the places to which their inmates are likely to return.

A civilised society should not be one in which the Chief Inspector of Prisons, Nick Hardwick can state that the “prisons were in their worse state for 10 years”. Nor where his recently appointed successor Peter Clarke can say “the situation has got even worse” and that our prisons are “unacceptably violent and dangerous places”.

Chris Grayling’s appalling legacy as Justice Secretary has to be addressed with urgency by Lis Truss. Not just by taking forward some of Gove’s aspirations, but through a major change in the whole approach to penal policy, backed by adequate funding – an investment which will ultimately pay for itself.

Lord Jeremy Beecham is Shadow Justice Minister in the House of Lords. He tweets @JeremyBeecham

Published 21st October 2016

Moving the gaol posts

Jeremy Beecham on the government’s half-hearted attempts to resolve the UK’s prison crisis

KayAndrews.jpgKay Andrews on the likely dire consequences of expanded school selection

At a time when – globally and domestically – the country needs clear thinking, clever solutions, and humane policies, the Prime Minister, brilliantly, has decided that a return to grammar schools holds the solution. She has few friends in this conviction and it is a rare gift to have wound up her ex-Chancellor, ex- Secretary of States for Education, trade unions, teachers, most of the Tory-supporting press, parents, and the Labour Party in principled and professional opposition.

Mrs May says that this is what parents want; that grammar schools work for the poorest children who are presently excluded from the opportunities that only they can provide; that they accelerate social mobility; that they close the attainment gap between rich and poor children; that they can inspire all schools to achieve more.

Each of these fallacies can be picked apart by reference to history, experience, logic and evidence. Much of it has been done in recent weeks by authoritative bodies and educationalists (including of course the Chief Inspector of Schools, Michael Wilshaw). And most importantly by people who know from bitter experience the lifelong impact of being declared a failure at 11 years old – before they even had a chance to know what they were good at. Most parents, for example, when polled, may like the idea of grammar schools in theory, but do not want a return to selection. It is an understandable contradiction, given the myths that have accumulated.

All these false notions are bundled together by Mrs May in her discovery of the notion of ‘meritocracy’ (a.k.a: ‘the Great Meritocracy’). Unfortunately, she profoundly misunderstands the meaning of the term.

Grammar schools, as Michael Young (who invented the term and wrote the book) believed, were the enemies of a true meritocracy – which depended on the best opportunities and resources being available to all without discrimination. The evidence shows that working class children who got into grammars left earlier and with fewer ‘O’ levels. 

Also, grammar schools were not responsible for accelerating social mobility. That was achieved by a fast changing economy and labour market in the 1950s and 1960s. But they did have a documented and devastating effect on their local schools and communities, breeding failure, resentment, and lack of ambition.

The fatuous title of the Green Paper, ‘Schools that Work for Everyone’ is certainly a sentiment that everyone can agree on. But grammars are designed, specifically, not to work for everyone.

Mrs May claims that they bring greater opportunities for parents and children who are now losing out in education. At best, this is a bizarre commentary on seven years of Conservative education policy; at worst, it is profoundly misleading. Grammars do get better academic results. So they should. They take in fewer poorer children (2.5% on free school meals, compared with a 13% average across the state sector); significant numbers from the private sector; and many children who have been intensively coached. A factor which, in itself, means some parents can game the system to great advantage. No level playing field here.   

Yes – they do close the attainment gap between poor and rich children; but only within schools. Far from motivating some institutions to do better, the evidence reveals negative impacts on others locally, so poorer children in selective areas do worse rather than better. So much for the Great Meritocracy.  

If Grammars are the answer, why are there so few in London, and no demand for more - when the capital’s schools face the most demanding circumstances? Because London has made comprehensives work for all London children to a standard previously never achieved.

If Grammars are the answer, why does every country in the world not go down this road? Because successful countries know that in an interdependent and very dangerous world, lavishing resources on a minority of academically gifted children is to miss the point – fatally.

Children need to be able to work with the world as it will be – highly competitive, highly risky – from the earliest age. They all need the best possible teaching and learning to acquire literacy and language, technical competence, the power to think creatively and work collaboratively; as well as a curriculum that stretches in all directions.

A wise and successful country would be prioritising the early years, and what happens in schools. It would be investing in professional development and leadership, and in innovative schemes like Teach First and families learning together. As well as both the new University Technical Colleges, and innovative ways of breaking down historic cultural barriers between academic and professional disciplines.

If we did all of this, we might be able to face a post-Brexit future – with all its risks and exclusions – with greater confidence and more collective purpose.

The alternative, set out in the government’s Green Paper – with its central and discredited principle – will reinforce a view of a country that rejects evidence, and relies on nostalgia. A country which, ultimately, may work for no-one.

Baroness Kay Andrews is a backbench Labour Peer and a former government minister

Published 13th October 2016

*A shorter version of this blog was published by Politics Home

A fatal distraction

Kay Andrews on the likely dire consequences of expanded school selection

GordonBorrie.jpgChristine Crawley pays tribute to Lord Borrie, who died on 30th September

Gordon Borrie was fearless. As Director General of the Office of Fair Trading from 1976 to 1992, he stood up to the price fixers, the market riggers, the vested interests and those with monopolistic tendencies. And at the same time he stood up for British consumers, battling rogue traders, hidden charges, shoddy service and baffling small print.

Gordon believed in open but regulated markets with the same passion that he believed in the Labour Party. A whip smart ability to take on all-comers in commercial and consumer affairs while keeping his cool, meant that two Prime Ministers – Jim Callaghan and Margaret Thatcher – found him indispensable.

It was my privilege to work closely with Gordon on consumer affairs legislation in the Lords. Our small band of cross-party consumer geeks (they know who they are) always recognised the respect in which the House held Gordon as he held forth on the topic of the day. Colleagues paid attention when he spoke – including in recent years on the Consumer Rights Bill, the Public Bodies Order or the many debates on the very real and often unwise changes to the UK’s consumer landscape post-2010. He particularly regretted the abolition of the National Consumer Council.

Gordon was respected not only for the depth of his knowledge and the clarity of his judgement but also for the invariably fresh perspective he brought to our discussions. And not just on consumer issues, as he illustrated when debating Lords reform and the role of bishops; or the Anti-Social Behaviour Crime and Policing Bill – which reminded him of his days as a young barrister in the 1950s, prosecuting shoplifters up and down Oxford Street. Always reflective and always probing, Gordon was never cynical and believed that Parliament mattered in people’s lives.

We did not agree about everything in debate but a cup of tea or something stronger soon brought harmony.

Gordon was President of the Trading Standards Institute (TSI) from 1992 to 1996, to be followed by Judith Wilcox, the late Tim Garden and since 2009 myself. We often spoke about the important work of Trading Standards Officers and he advised me, when I took over the Presidency, that I would be hard-pressed to find a better, more diligent, more decent bunch of public servants. Gordon was right – as usual.

He is fondly remembered at the Chartered Trading Standards Institute (as it’s known today). The former CEO, Ron Gainsford, told me recently that his abiding memory will be of Gordon and his beloved wife Dorene (usually wearing one of her many striking hats) each year at the TSI conference gala dinner – dancing so wonderfully and with such zest.  How Gordon missed Dorene when she died in 2010; they were such a lifelong team, delighting in each other’s company.

Gordon was a Labour man. He stood unsuccessfully in Croydon North East in 1955 and in Ilford South in 1959. He was made a life peer in 1995.

Arguably, his most important influence on our Party came from his role as Chair of the Commission on Social Justice, as launched by John Smith in 1992. The Commission called for deeper thinking about social issues, especially welfare policy. Its output had the effect of conveying to the electorate that Labour was changing, and became a template for how Opposition should prepare for government. (Two other members of that Commission, Margaret Wheeler and Ruth Lister, sit on the Labour benches in the Lords).

There was a crucial symbolism in the timing of the Commission’s birth – the 50th anniversary of the Beveridge Report. Indeed, it was billed as the ‘New Beveridge’ but to properly represent the needs of the 1990s, the Commission added ‘discrimination’ to the original list of great evils: want, idleness, ignorance, disease, and squalor. The incoming Labour government of 1997 was to draw on the work of the Commission in several policy areas to the benefit of the British people over the following decade.

Gordon’s was a full life, a life well lived and a life that influenced the progress of modern Britain. What more could one ask? We are poorer for his passing.

Baroness Christine Crawley is a Labour Peer in the House of Lords and the current President of the Trading Standards Institute

Published 10th October 2016

Remembering Gordon Borrie

Christine Crawley pays tribute to Lord Borrie, who died on 30th September

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