The Ministry of Justice does not understand the cost of prison

New report reveals that lack of financial controls at the ministry could be affecting services.

The National Audit Office has conducted an investigation into the way the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) administers its finances and found that its operations are not up to scratch. The problem areas, according to the report, are the MoJ's understanding of its costs, lack of consistency in its financial approach, and a feeble commitment to "a clear, comprehensive action plan". Although the situation is improving, it says there is still a long way to go.

However, the report also contains a dire warning of how poor financial management could be affecting its services:

The Ministry does not understand the costs of its activities within prisons, the probation service, and the courts in sufficient detail. This reduces the Ministry's ability to allocate resources on the basis of relative financial and operational performance of individual prisons, probation services and courts.

Given the Justice Secretary Ken Clarke's recent high-profile announcement that he will seek to reform the way prison works, the "financial pressures" on the MoJ that the report identifies are not likely to go away as it tackles new policy and new ways of distributing funding. With the additional burden of finding spending cuts, the task for the MoJ is not going to get any easier.

Targeting funding at specific prisons, courts and services is going to become even more important as budgets are slashed. We need to be confident that the MoJ is up to the task of maintaining services in difficult financial circumstances, and this report casts grave doubts on its ability to do so.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

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Who will win in Manchester Gorton?

Will Labour lose in Manchester Gorton?

The death of Gerald Kaufman will trigger a by-election in his Manchester Gorton seat, which has been Labour-held since 1935.

Coming so soon after the disappointing results in Copeland – where the seat was lost to the Tories – and Stoke – where the party lost vote share – some overly excitable commentators are talking up the possibility of an upset in the Manchester seat.

But Gorton is very different to Stoke-on-Trent and to Copeland. The Labour lead is 56 points, compared to 16.5 points in Stoke-on-Trent and 6.5 points in Copeland. (As I’ve written before and will doubtless write again, it’s much more instructive to talk about vote share rather than vote numbers in British elections. Most of the country tends to vote in the same way even if they vote at different volumes.)

That 47 per cent of the seat's residents come from a non-white background and that the Labour party holds every council seat in the constituency only adds to the party's strong position here. 

But that doesn’t mean that there is no interest to be had in the contest at all. That the seat voted heavily to remain in the European Union – around 65 per cent according to Chris Hanretty’s estimates – will provide a glimmer of hope to the Liberal Democrats that they can finish a strong second, as they did consistently from 1992 to 2010, before slumping to fifth in 2015.

How they do in second place will inform how jittery Labour MPs with smaller majorities and a history of Liberal Democrat activity are about Labour’s embrace of Brexit.

They also have a narrow chance of becoming competitive should Labour’s selection turn acrimonious. The seat has been in special measures since 2004, which means the selection will be run by the party’s national executive committee, though several local candidates are tipped to run, with Afzal Khan,  a local MEP, and Julie Reid, a local councillor, both expected to run for the vacant seats.

It’s highly unlikely but if the selection occurs in a way that irritates the local party or provokes serious local in-fighting, you can just about see how the Liberal Democrats give everyone a surprise. But it’s about as likely as the United States men landing on Mars any time soon – plausible, but far-fetched. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.