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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How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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