Sketch: sickly George fails to rouse the Tory faithful

Even mentioning Margaret Thatcher brought the Chancellor only desultory applause.

As befits someone whose career had crashed and burned in just six months, he arrived looking like he had come straight from being sick in the toilets. White-faced, rictus grin in place, the Chancellor of the Exchequer stumbled onto the stage at the Tory Party conference looking as if he had been propelled from the wings by some erstwhile friend.
 
The Birmingham venue for the conference is an unhappy looking place reminiscent of the City Varieties in Leeds, where the BBC used to run a music hall programme for those whose careers were dipping. So perhaps it was fitting that the man who had once hoped to follow BF Dave to the top job in British politics should be forced to face his former friends in such a spot.
 
The Prime Minister himself slipped in just seconds before George started to speak, following a vain attempt to warm up the audience by MP Michael Fallon, recently promoted to the government for being able to find good things to say about the Tories on anything from Newsnight to Match of the Day. M Fallon had trotted out three company bosses to explain just how successful the government was proving and the conference, which loves bosses and success, ate it up.
 
Further attempts to deflect attention were made by the man who almost ran the Olympics, shortly to join the government via the House of Lords, who spoke of his desire to bring joined-up thinking to Whitehall. (He is not to be confused with Seb Coe, who did run the Olympics, and who will be brought out on Wednesday to ease the way into the PM's speech.)
 
But it was still as chilly as a Saturday night out in Newcastle as the Chancellor started to speak. The conference is used to being warmed up by ritual denunciation of hate figures like Bob Crow or anybody else the Daily Mail dislikes but George remarkably chose one of their own to try and ease himself off the hook.
 
Former Tory PM Ted Heath was dissed to death as the Chancellor declared that giving into the unions and bending under pressure was not his way. Instead it was the toughness of the Tory PM who followed, Margaret Thatcher, that he intended to follow. Mentioning Mrs T at a Tory Party conference is usually a "get-out of-jail" free card, but even this brought George only desultory applause.
 
He managed to get them going a bit with a bash at those on benefits, but lost them again when he said the rich might have to pay some more. The audience clapped when he said no to a mansion tax but squirmed when he mentioned the poor. And they positively withered away when, for some reason, which will clearly only become obvious when the deals with the Lib Dems are done, he decided to pay them credit. "We could have done none not it without the coalition, " he said and at least six people applauded.
 
There were several more low points in his speech as he reminded them that the hard times were not over by a long shot, that more cuts were needed and that the Hubble Space Telescope would be needed to see the sunlit uplands. By now, the panicked Chancellor must have thought all of his audience were either rolling their eyes or staring off into space as no-one had apparently realised the effect of sticking the big screen, onto which his twitching body was projected, 10 feet above his head. And so, underwhelmed by applause, he finally stopped rather than finished, wisely paused for only five seconds for the official standing ovation and left just before the big hook appeared from the wings to drag him off.
 
Chancellor George Osborne delivers his speech during the second day of the annual Conservative conference in Birmingham. Photograph: Getty Images.

Peter McHugh is the former Director of Programmes at GMTV and Chief Executive Officer of Quiddity Productions

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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.