Birmingham prison: the neglect of public values


The blistering words of Peter Clarke, Chief Inspector of Prisons, about the appalling state of Birmingham Prison ring in the ears – drugs, violence, fear and filth. Accurate parallels have been drawn with the squalor of eighteenth century prisons. While many have pointed to staggering challenges facing Birmingham this is not a unique case.

Commentators have variously blamed the shortcomings of G4S, a failing policy of privatisation, a decade of unrelenting austerity (with cuts of over 40% to prison budgets) leading to systemic failures in the criminal justice system which is now on its knees. Underlying all of these is something more insidious and deeply pernicious: an abject absence of the values which should imbue public services, including human dignity, equality and allocation of resources to ensure that everyone is able to access public goods (such as security, housing, healthcare) regardless of their own, private means.

It is clear from Peter Clarke’s report that, in the case of Birmingham outsourcing to the private sector has been far from the promised panacea, it has been a disaster.

“There has clearly been an abject failure of contract management and delivery…The inertia that seems to have gripped both those monitoring the contract and delivering it on the ground has led to one of Britain’s leading jails slipping into a state of crisis.”

There is much to unpick about the failures of G4S and this wider model of outsourcing but in the case of Birmingham Prison, it would be wrong to simply write this off as a natural consequence of privatisation. The problems run deeper… It is evident (as indicated by another 10 prisons which are failing), that even publicly run prisons are finding it impossible to run safe and orderly prisons under deep public sector austerity. Furthermore, adequate resource is a world away from the vision of a truly reformed criminal justice system, which directs investment to addressing the causes of criminality and stemming the flow of people to prison. Privatisation, the targeting of swingeing cuts on services for the most marginalised people in our society and the failure to deliver meaningful prison reform emerge from the same root – an erosion of fundamental public values.

Minister for Prisons, Rory Stewart, has laudably staked his career on sorting out the prison crisis. So, here are two suggestions to get him started:

    1. In the immediate term put prison funding onto a stable and meaningful footing, with a firm commitment to move onto the hard work of re-balancing investment to prevention and prison reform in the medium term.
    2. Lead a muscular reassertion of public values in the commissioning of these crucial public services
      • The devastating failure of both G4S and civil service contract managers is a symptom of what can happen when a public service is reduced to a contractual relationship, where the lived experience of citizens and staff are given no weight. Fundamental to putting dignity back in the heart of public services is the embedding of co-production with citizens and users at all stages of the commissioning process, from defining the service being commissioned to the evaluation of providers and monitoring of the service – with a requirement on all providers to demonstrate how they deliver these values in their work.
      • Embedding the highest ethical standards of employment for those providing public services, whatever sector they work in is also key. Public service contracts could require employers to pay the real Living Wage and demonstrate how they will guarantee fair working conditions for their employees of the type which have been proposed by Scotland’s Fair Work Convention.
      • Embedding social justice in all commissioning of criminal justice services so that the ultimate goals of these services, and the metrics against which they are measured, are based not merely on activity delivered, but on ensuring the provision of public goods – of safety, healthcare, education – to people who have often faced the most severe disadvantage.

What has happened in our Prisons is unacceptable in a decent society. It casts a powerful beam of light on the criminal justice systems and a range of other public services, which through austerity, privatisation and marketisation have lost touch with core principles of public service and public values. Mr Stewart has pledged to sort out the prison service, I wish him well. However, whatever he can achieve within that public service will be the mere tip of the iceberg. The erosion of public values is something which penetrates deep into all public services. Without an end to austerity and a restoration of public values, the lack of dignity and decency will remain a feature of public service generally. CLES is currently working on a route map to translate these goals into policy – and we invite Mr Stewart and any other Minister overseeing Public Services to get in touch so we can do that together.