Unlike the UK, France and Germany aren't in recession

Osborne was wrong to blame the eurozone for our double-dip recession.

George Osborne is fond of blaming the eurozone crisis  for Britain's economic woes (he recently claimed that the crisis had "killed off" growth in the UK) , so it's worth noting that, unlike the UK, the euro's two largest members - Germany and France - aren't in recession. While the British economy contracted by 0.7 per cent in the second quarter of this year, Eurostat figures out today showed that the French economy remained flat, while Germany grew by 0.3 per cent. In the previous quarter, Britain shrunk by 0.5 per cent, while Germany grew by 0.5 per cent and France stagnated.

Of course, since much of our trade is with the eurozone, its lack of growth (it collectively shrank by 0.2 per cent in Q2), doesn't help. But as even Tory MPs concede, it is some exaggeration to claim it "killed off" our recovery. The Chancellor accomplished that all by himself. It was his absurd claim that the UK was on "the brink of bankruptcy" and his premature austerity measures, most notably the 2.5 point rise in VAT, that destroyed confidence and strangled growth. With the exception of Italy, Britain is the only G20 country to have suffered a double-dip recession.

At this moment, contrary to Osborne, Britain should actually be profiting from the eurozone crisis. With investors ever more reluctant to lend to eurozone countries, the UK can afford to borrow at the lowest interest rates for 300 years. We are, as Osborne has said many times, a "safe haven". Yet the Chancellor appears determined not to take advantage of this fact. He has continually refused to borrow for growth (in the form of tax cuts and higher infrastructure spending), despite little evidence that this would lead to a rise in British gilt yields. It is only Osborne's political pride that is preventing a change of direction. Borrowing for growth would be a tacit admission that his nemesis, Ed Balls, was right and that he was wrong. Until the Chancellor backs down, we will all collectively pay for his stubbornness.

George Osborne claimed that the eurozone had "killed off" the UK's economic recovery. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

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.