Osborne's speech: long on politics, short on growth

The Chancellor launched attack after attack on Labour, but where was the plan for growth?

When George Osborne addressed the Conservative conference he did so as his party's chief election strategist, not as Chancellor. His speech was long on politics, but staggeringly short on growth (indeed, the word didn't appear) and jobs.

As ever, one could not fault his chutzpah. He declared that the country must not "divide one group against another" before casually demonising welfare claimants as scroungers, "sleeping off a life on benefits". He insisted that everyone had been too optimistic about growth, forgetting those economists - Paul Krugman, Robert Skidelsky, our own David Blanchflower - who warned that his obsession with austerity would tip the country back into recession. And, for the first time since he abolished the 50p tax rate on earnings over £150,000, he uttered the words "we're all in it together". In one of his many assaults on Labour, Osborne declared, "All this talk about something for something and they've learned nothing about anything", but with the country back in recession (the only G20 country, with the exception of Italy, to be so) and borrowing up by 22% so far this year, it was he who gave the appearance of having learned nothing.

Faced with a crisis of demand, the government needs to stimulate growth through tax cuts and higher infrastructure spending. It could take advantage of the ultra-low interest rates that Osborne is so fond of boasting of and borrow for an emergency stimulus. But all the Chancellor offered was a fiendishly complex new scheme allowing workers to acquire shares in their companies in exchange for giving up employment rights. In Britain, already the third most deregulated labour market in the developed world, it is not excessive regulation or "red tape" that is constraining growth. But the Chancellor, blind to the need to revive "animal spirits", still acts as if it is.

He unambiguously ruled out a "mansion tax", vowing that "this party of home ownership will have no truck with it". Yet just 3.1% of homes are worth more than £1m and the tax, as proposed by Vince Cable, would only apply to those twice this amount. In rejecting higher property taxes, Osborne has missed an opportunity to prove that he really is more concerned about "the squeezed middle" than squeezed millionaires. His priority, he said, would be to further reduce "aggressive tax avoidance", but making the rich pay taxes they're meant to be paying anyway is not the same as raising taxes on them. If the Lib Dems are to avoid further humiliation, they will need something more in return for signing up to an additional £10bn of punitive welfare cuts.

As Osborne spoke, it became clear that David Cameron had contracted out the job of attacking Ed Miliband to his Chancellor. Evidently unsettled by the Labour leader's bravura speech, Osborne declared that it was "risible" to pretend that you can become a party of "one nation" just by repeating the phrase, and that Miliband, masquerading as a centrist, was, in reality, "moving to the left". But in his refusal to adopt a more balanced deficit reduction strategy and in his defence of the wealthy, it is the Chancellor who has vacated the centre ground and his party that has relinquished any claim to be a party of "one nation". Today's speech did nothing to correct those errors.

Chancellor George Osborne delivers his speech during the second day of the annual Conservative conference in Birmingham. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Forget sniffer dogs. To stop drug abuse in prison, fight the real enemy – boredom

Since I left prison in 2011, the system has had £900m sucked out of it. No wonder officers are struggling to control drug use.

It’s rare to go a day in prison without someone offering you drugs. When I was sentenced to 16 months in 2011, I was shocked by the sheer variety on offer. It wasn’t just cannabis, heroin, and prescription pills. If you wanted something special, you could get that too: ecstasy for an in-cell rave, cocaine for the boxing, and, in one case, LSD for someone who presumably wanted to turn the waking nightmare of incarceration up to eleven.

Those were sober times, compared to how things are today. New synthetic drugs – powerful, undetectable, and cheap – have since flooded the market. As the Ministry of Justice itself admitted in its recent White Paper, they’ve lost control: “The motivation and ability of prisoners and organised crime groups to use and traffic illegal drugs has outstripped our ability to prevent this trade.”

The upshot is that, rather than emerging from prison with a useful new trade or skill, inmates are simply picking up new drug habits. According to a report released on 8 December by drug policy experts Volteface, on average 8 per cent of people who did not have a previous drug problem come out of prison with one. In some of the worst institutions, the figure is as high as 16 per cent.

Why are people with no history of drug abuse being driven to it in prison?

There’s the jailbreak factor, of course. All prisoners dream of escape, and drugs are the easiest way out. But, according the report, the most common reason given by inmates is simply boredom.

Life when I was inside was relatively benign. On most days, for instance, there were enough members of staff on duty to let inmates out of their cells to shower, use a telephone, post a letter, or clean their clothes. Sometimes an emergency would mean that there might not be enough hands on deck to escort people off the wing to education, worship, drug therapy, healthcare, family visits, work, or other purposeful activities; but those occasions were mercifully rare.

Since then, the system has had £900m sucked out of it, and the number of operational staff has been reduced by 7,000. All such a skeleton crew can do is rush from one situation to the next. An assault or a suicide in one part of the prison (which have increased by 64 per cent and 75 per cent respectively since 2012) often results in the rest being locked down. The 2,100 new officers the MoJ has promised to recruit don’t come anywhere close to making up the shortfall. Purposeful activity – the cornerstone of effective rehabilitation – has suffered. Inmates are being forced to make their own fun.

Enter ‘synthetic cannabinoid receptor agonists’, or SCRAs, often more simply referred to by brand names such as ‘Spice’ or ‘Black Mamba’. Over 200 of them are available on the international market and they are, today, the most popular drugs in British prisons. A third of inmates admitted to having used ‘Spice’ within the last month, according to a recent survey conducted by User Voice, and the true figure is probably even higher.

As one serving prisoner recently told me: "It's the perfect drug. You can smoke it right under the governor's nose and they won't be able to tell. Not even the dogs can sniff it out."

The combination of extreme boredom and experimental drugs has given birth to scenes both brutal and bizarre. Mobile phone footage recently emerged from Forest Bank prison showing naked, muzzled prisoners – apparently under the influence of such drugs – being made to take part in human dog fights. At the same establishment, another naked prisoner introduces himself to the camera as an ‘Islamic Turkey Vulture’ before squatting over another inmate and excreting ‘golden eggs’, believed to be packets of drugs, into his mouth. It sounds more like a scene from Salò than the prison culture I recall.

The solution to this diabolical situation might seem obvious: but not to Justice Secretary Liz Truss. Her answers are more prison time (up to ten years) for visitors caught smuggling ‘spice’, and new technology to detect the use of these drugs, which will inevitably fail to keep up with the constantly changing experimental drugs market. Earlier this week, she even suggested that drug-delivery drones could be deterred using barking dogs.

Trying to solve prison problems with more prison seems the very definition of madness. Indeed, according to the Howard League for Penal Reform, over the last six years, inmates have received over a million days of extra punishment for breaking prison rules – which includes drug use – with no obvious positive effects.

Extra security measures – the training of ‘spice dogs’, for example – are also doomed to fail. After all, it’s not like prison drug dealers are hard to sniff out. They have the best trainers, the newest tracksuits, their cells are Aladdin’s Caves of contraband - and yet they rarely seem to get caught. Why? The image of a prison officer at HMP Wayland politely informing our wing dealer that his cell was scheduled for a search later that day comes to mind. Unless the huge demand for drugs in prison is dealt with, more security will only result in more corruption.

It might be a bitter pill for a Tory minister to swallow but it’s time to pay attention to prisoners’ needs. If the prodigious quantities of dangerous experimental drugs they are consuming are anything to go by, it’s stimulation they really crave. As diverting as extra drug tests, cell searches, and the sight of prison dogs trying to woof drones out of the sky might momentarily be, it’s not going to be enough.

That’s not to say that prisons should become funfairs, or the dreaded holiday camps of tabloid fantasy, but at the very last they should be safe, stable environments that give inmates the opportunity to improve their lives. Achieving that will require a degree of bravery, imagination, and compassion possibly beyond the reach of this government. But, for now, we live in hope. The prisoners, in dope.