Prisons brought to brink of collapse by Tory lord chancellors, says ex-boss

Phil Wheatley blames Gove, Clarke and Grayling for ‘operational disaster’ that will take years to put right.

The last three Conservative lord chancellors have been blamed for “bringing the custodial system to the brink of collapse” by the former head of the prison and probation services in England and Wales.

It took years of Tory cuts and wild policy swings to create this prisons crisis

Writing for the Guardian Phil Wheatley, the former chief executive of the National Offender Management Service and director general of the prison service, said it would “take years to put right” but the role of successive Conservative justice secretaries needed to be openly acknowledged and understood “if there is to be any chance of recovering from the current disaster”.

Wheatley explicitly blamed Ken Clarke, Chris Grayling and Michael Gove for bringing the custodial system to a state of “operational disaster” as a direct result of deep budget cuts and wild swings in government policy.

“This current crisis is a failure of major proportions for the government. Managing prisons is a difficult and highly skilled task that requires adequate resourcing and a stable policy environment. Since 2010 the government has failed on both counts,” he wrote.

He said the current lord chancellor, Elizabeth Truss, deserved credit for quickly recognising that prison staffing levels were too low to maintain safety or security, managing to secure Treasury backing to partially reverse jail staffing cuts by recruiting an extra 2,500 prison officers, and launching a prison safety reform programme.

The unprecedented intervention by Wheatley, who retired in 2010 and was succeeded by Michael Spurr, highlights deep concern that the prison crisis will not easily be put right – with dire consequences for prisoners, staff and the public.

He said when the coalition came to power in 2010, prisons were already dangerously overcrowded “despite advice on the risks, making it necessary for me to refuse outright to comply with their wishes”. He retired and his successor has had to deal with the bigger challenge of cuts to an unprotected budget compounded by “successive lord chancellors introducing their own radically different policies for prisons”.

Wheatley said Clarke, the first coalition lord chancellor, accepted deep budget cuts for the justice ministry on the basis he could reduce the prison population and put public sector prisons out to tender. But two years later David Cameron removed him for not being seen to be tough on prisoners.

Grayling followed with a brief to be a tough justice secretary without cutting jail numbers and no extra funding. Grayling abandoned the prison competition plans and instead announced his own reform programme across prison and probation. Wheatley said Grayling’s plans “threatened the stability and safety of prisons” but were considered essential to deliver the funding cuts without attracting tabloid criticism in the run-up to the 2015 general election.

According to Wheatley, Gove, the third Conservative lord chancellor, “charmed penal reformers by rubbishing most” of Grayling’s policies. But when Gove proposed his own reform vision of more liberal treatment of prisoners and individual freedom for governors, he ignored the predicament prisons were actually in. A third reorganisation of the NOMS in five years was ordered.

“Gove was, of course, gone before he had to take responsibility for the disruption caused both by his abandonment of Grayling’s policies and his abject failure to engage with their consequences,” said Wheatley.

He said the “operational disaster” that Truss inherited was a result of the continued budget reductions and swings in government policy. He said the result has been the loss of experienced prison managers and staff, too few prison officers of any sort, wages that make it difficult to recruit and retain staff, and cuts in prisoner programmes.

“The situation is now so parlous and will only be resolved by a prolonged period of policy stability and investment. It will take years to put right,” Wheatley wrote. He said the current leaders of the prison service had struggled to deliver what was required of them by politicians who, in turn, had been told what risks they were running.

“The responsibility of ministers in bringing our custodial system to the brink of collapse needs to be understood and openly acknowledged if there is to be any chance of recovering from the current disaster,” he warned.

Original story – https://www.theguardian.com/society/2016/dec/12/prisons-brought-to-brink-of-collapse-by-tory-lord-chancellors-says-ex-boss