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 the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

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