UK politics. World events. Bureaucrat released.

Thursday, 30 June 2011

Strike One?

Well, I'm not going to do an Ed Miliband this week and shy away from the biggest public sector strikes for 5 years that took to the streets of London today.

It seemed a half-hearted affair to me. I was in Whitehall this morning, and I couldn't work out why more union members weren't on the picket lines putting their case across and making more of an impact. At the Ministry of Justice and DWP, there were probably no more than six or seven people. By 2.30pm, with the march over, pubs in Westminster were spilling over with union members who appeared to be done with the marching, thank you very much, and were tucking into the pints.

There's no doubt that the pensions deal for public sector workers represents a serious step back from the status quo. It's a worse deal.

Treasury Minister Justine Greening got into a bit of hot water on the Today programme yesterday as to whether the current public sector pensions bill was "unaffordable" or "untenable". She conceded that it wasn't unaffordable, but that the Government had decided they were untenable.

It's an important distinction, because it confirms the Government is doing this on the basis of fairness (or, more crudely: cuts) than because public sector pensions are inherently unsustainable. It represents a change in tack from the Government who previously ran the "we're all getting older, state is having to pay more" line. Hutton's report does actually show the cost of public sector pensions falling, not rising, as a proportion of GDP.

But I still believe this reform is, in a time where savings must be found to reduce the deficit, a necessary course correction. To close the gap between public and private sector pensions, given that the gap between average public and private sector earnings has also closed in recent years.

Successive governments have failed to grasp the nettle of public sector pension reform. Even if the status quo is affordable, the Government's proposals I think represent a balanced and fair way of delivering fairer and more balanced public sector pensions. They still give public sector workers a better deal than they would find in the private sector. In doing so, they still offer reward and recognition for public service - but in a less evangelical way than previously. Whilst public sector workers deliver so much for our communities, it's never been as simple as public sector (good), private sector (bad) - even with the banking crisis. The previous public sector pension deals frankly got the balance of fairness wrong as compared with the private sector.

So, the government will prevail. Mainly because public opinion will be with them on this one and not with the unions. Whilst everyone else is tightening their belts, and whilst the pension deal remains a better one than is available in the private sector - there's almost no argument beyond "this is a worse deal than we had before".

Credit to the coalition government for this brave course correction. Just don't lose your nerve again.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Broken prisons: who's guilty?

Another week, another U-turn from the Government - this week on sentencing reform. Ken Clarke's plans to cut prison sentences by 50% in return for early guilty pleas. Ken was chasing cuts. Cameron - late in the day - saw the dangers in being seen to be soft on crime.

You have to feel some sympathy for Ken Clarke. He has to find massive, 23% savings in his Department's budget. The prison population was allowed to get out of control under Labour - soaring to 85,000 from 40,000 when Clarke was Home Secretary in the 1990s.

And the cost? A whopping £45,000 per year per prison place. More than a year's fees at Eton.

The prison population has to be brought down somehow. Yes, because there's no money left to keep locking people up at the current rate. But, more importantly, because the prison system in England and Wales is - frankly - broken.

Consider this. 50% of all prisoners reoffend within a year of leaving prison. No wonder the numbers are unsustainable.

The real story today - more than U-turns - is how our prisons have got so out of control. Yes, Labour created a pack of new offences that meant more people ended up in jail. But once offenders get to prison, they're enrolling into a college of crime where up to half of them will commit more crime once they're out.

I can't see how the Prison Service is not to blame for this. Politicians rightly get it in the neck when things go wrong and it's right that Ministers should be ultimately accountable to Parliament. They formulate the policy and ask the public servants - the prison officers, the experts - to implement those policies and to get on and design and deliver the public service in the most efficient and effective way they can.

And yet prisoners are re-offending in shocking numbers - to say nothing of the 50% of prisoners who are on drugs in prison. There has been a systemic mismanagement of the prison system in England and Wales for a very long time for things to have got this bad. More crime. More victims. More expensive prison places. More crime. The cycle of crime goes on...

Clarke's plans this week propose sensible steps for dealing with this. Payment by results - paying private sector prison providers for the number of offenders they put back on the straight and narrow makes sense. Prisons must become places of work, rehabilitation and reform - too many prisoners sit around bored out of their skulls. These are long-term fixes that the Government is right to implement.

The U-turn on halving sentences for guilty pleas has grabbed the headlines. But the guilty party - the Prison Service public service managers who have so consistently mismanaged our prisons for years - have got away with it.

They need to be held accountable.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Snapshot: NHS reforms... behind the curve

Much of the press coverage of the revisions to the Health and Social Care Bill this week will focus on Tory U-turns and Lib Dems crowing at securing concessions. The draft Bill was Andrew Lansley's, crafted after years in Opposition. He should have done better - why he needed a 10-week consultation period with health professionals a year after announcing his policy and some years after he first thought of it really should prompt serious questions about Tory policy formulation and Cameron's hand's off leadership style. Cameron, it seems, only gets hands once the proverbial's hitting the fan.

And, though Nick Clegg claims victory - let's not forget that the Lib Dems went along with this policy lock stock and barrel when it was first announced, only applying the brakes once the Spring Conference asked Lib Dem Ministers to go away and have a re-think.

So, whilst Nick Clegg claims victory - it was a re-think forced on him rather than one of conviction.

If we're looking at the politics of all of this - forget the U-turns... why are Ministers so behind the curve?