David Laws: Cameron's true-blue wingman

The Lib Dem will say things even David Cameron won’t.

David Cameron has continued his efforts to open up some “clear blue water” between his own party and their Liberal Democrat coalition partners. In an interview with the Mail on Sunday, he trails a plan to scrap housing benefit for under-25s. He says:

A couple will say, “We are engaged, we are both living with our parents, we are trying to save before we get married and have children and be good parents. But how does it make us feel, Mr Cameron, when we see someone who goes ahead, has the child, gets the council home, gets the help that isn’t available to us?”’

‘One is trapped in a welfare system that discourages them from working, the other is doing the right thing and getting no help.
It’s a measure guaranteed to be unpopular with Liberal Democrats, but also seemed tailor-made to discourage anyone under the age of 25 from voting Conservative.

For a glimpse into what this cut could mean for many young people, you can't do better than to read Petra Davis' piece on it from earlier this year.

There are also hints that plans to limit child benefit to a couples first three children are back on the table, although the MoS states that he won’t be doint that “unless he wins public support, and even then it won’t be until after the next election.”

However, David Cameron receives help from an unexpected quarter this morning in his efforts to assert his diehard Tory-ness. David Laws has given an interview to the Sunday Telegraph in which he discusses the need for deeper tax and spending cuts. Only health, education and pension spending should be protected, he argues:

We are going to have to see a shrinking of the state share of the economy until it is back into kilter with the amount of tax people are prepared to be pay… Future UK governments should consider a further substantial rise in the personal tax allowance, along with lower marginal tax rates of tax at all income levels.

Whenever Laws makes an intervention like this (which he has done periodically since leaving the Cabinet in 2010), the likes of Paul Goodman at ConservativeHome call for his return to the top ranks of government, although quite who Laws could practically replace is far from clear.

I’m not so sure Laws is headed back to a ministerial position, though. He seems to be doing an excellent job of being David Cameron’s true-blue wingman, saying the truly Tory things that a Conservative PM fearful of his chances of ever securing a majority shies a way from. Laws blurs the lines between the coalition partners. If he comes back inside the Cabinet room, the differences and disagreements will suddenly look a lot starker.

David Laws during the coalition negotiations in 2010. Photograph: Getty Images

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

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Michael Gove's quiet revolution could transform prisoner education

To anyone with a passing interest in prisoner education it is clear that current levels of education and training are simply inadequate.

Justice Secretary Michael Gove is quietly embarking on the most substantive prison education reform programme for a generation. In September, Gove announced that Dame Sally Coates would chair a review of the provision and quality of education in prisons, the results of which are expected shortly.

To anyone with a passing interest in prisoner education it is clear that current levels of education and training are simply inadequate. In 2014, Ofsted reported that education levels across the British prison system were inadequate, suggesting that “very few prisoners are getting the opportunity to develop the skills and behaviours they need for work.” Between 2011/12 and 2013/14 the number of prisoners achieving a level 1 or 2 qualification in Mathematics fell by a third, and since 2010 the number of prisoners studying for an Open University degree has dropped by 37%.

In light of these damning statistics, Gove’s calls for prisons to become “places of education” is to be welcomed. The most obvious result of improved opportunities for training and education is that upon leaving prison offenders will be more likely to secure employment and less likely to reoffend. Less tangible, but no less important, limited opportunities for education hinder aspiration and prevent the justice system from acting as a conduit to improving society at large. Too often offenders are unable to develop their potential as citizens and contribute accordingly. Education is a powerful force in building offenders’ confidence and helping to engage with their communities upon release: helping to break the cycle of offending.

In tandem with enhanced opportunities for education, skills and training, Gove has promised greater autonomy for prison governors. Currently, the Skills Funding Agency manages the Offenders’ Learning and Skills Service (OLASS) to connect offender education with mainstream provision. Speaking before the APPG on Penal Affairs, Dame Sally suggested that “many governors feel very frustrated by their lack of ability to have any say in the education delivered.  If we want the governors to be accountable, they have to have the autonomy to contract for this for themselves, or employ their own teaching staff.”

The principle of increased flexibility is a good one. A significant minority of prisoners already have qualifications and require opportunity to build upon them. The education pathways available to them will be quite different to those offenders who enter prison with limited numeracy and literacy skills. However, the high-profile failure of private suppliers to deliver even the most basic services, raises questions as to whether major outsourcing firms will be able to provide these.

In 2014, A4E prematurely pulled out of a £17m contract to deliver education and training to prisoners in 12 London prisons on the grounds that it was unable to run the contract at a profit. This was not the first time that A4E had prematurely terminated a prison education contract. In 2008 the firm ended a similar contract to provide education in eight Kent prisons, again citing huge losses.

Recognising such failures, the Prime Minister has argued that his government’s reform program would “allow new providers and new ideas to flourish”, but the steps to achieving this are unclear. Identifying the difficulty smaller providers – particularly those from the third sector – currently have in winning and delivering contracts is a far easier task than redesigning the contracting system to improve their chances.

There are three steps that could act as a starting point. First, a review of commissioning to ensure a plurality of providers, particularly from small and medium-sized organisations should be considered, with payments-by-results the favoured means of remuneration. Second, providers and experts should be empowered to contribute to the reform process that follows the Coates Review’s publication. Third, it is clear that while a universal standard of education must be set, providers and governors should be empowered to experiment and innovate to seek results above this. In sacrificing universality it may be possible to improve methods and achieve better results in future.

Reforming the prison system is not a task that will be easy, nor one that will be quick. To ensure its long-term success it is vital that education and skills providers’ voices are heard and that the government develops forums through which ideas can be shared. For too long talent, resources and time have been wasted through mismanagement and poor provision. Now is the time to reverse this and ensure that the justice system delivers rehabilitation and improved educational outcomes.