A couple of years ago I had some spare money and decided to donate it to a charity. There are so many charities that command out attention – all of them worthy, but some more fashionable than others. So I thought that I would try to seek out as unpopular a cause as possible and did an internet search on just that. The result (and I wonder if you can guess it?) was a charity that supports ex-prisoners into work, for example by paying for training, or travel fares to job interviews. Whether this is truly the most unpopular charity I don’t know – it might come up on a search engine just by having those words somewhere on its website – but it seemed plausible and I donated accordingly.
thinking about this because of the news this week of a murder
in Pentonville prison. Violence in prisons is getting worse and the
connection with my charity search is that, I suppose, most of us don’t really
care. Of all of the problems and injustices in the world somehow those that
befall criminals bother us least. After all, they are the dregs of society so
at best why should we care and at worst they probably deserve it, right?
think. We sentence criminals, quite properly, to the punishment decreed by the courts.
That may include incarceration, but it doesn’t include being subject to
violence up to an including murder. And as so often, the dictates of morality
and those of practicality are linked: if our prisons are brutally violent not
only is that morally repugnant it also makes the chances of rehabilitation
violence – including violence against staff - is rising for a simple reason: funding
cuts and consequent understaffing. Austerity economics has a cheery
make-do-and-mend, belt-tightening sound to it, but the reality after several
years of cuts is stark and is happening right across the piece.
Sometimes the consequences are direct: roads
fall into disrepair, libraries
close, the court
system clogs up or the armed
forces can’t fulfil the basic requirement of protecting the nation. Other
times the consequences are indirect: social
care provision disappears creating ‘bed-blocking’ in hospitals. In fact,
the problems of prison violence are in
part due to the inadequacy of (in particular mental) health services.
For years it
has been a truism that you can’t solve public service problems by ‘throwing
money at them’ – the alternative always being reorganization, subcontracting
and privatization – which easily mutates into the absurdity that money doesn’t
matter at all. The consequence is that, for a while, things hold together.
Savings can be made, a bit; people working in services can work harder, a bit;
cuts can be made, a bit. But, gradually, the public sphere breaks down. I think
that that is where we are getting to now in the UK – a spreading paralysis and
crisis in every area of public life.
At the root
of all this is a dishonesty. The small-state political Right could say that the
government should get out of huge swathes of public provision and cut public
spending accordingly. Or the social democratic Left could say that government
must deliver public provision and raise taxes accordingly. Instead, we have
lived for decades with the pretence that we can both have extensive public
provision and have spending and/or tax cuts. That pretence has now run out of
steam, and the choice will have to be faced up to, unless slow decline and periodic scandal are to continue.