Who gains from Milburn move?

After Hutton and Field, coalition comes for Alan Milburn.

So, Alan Milburn may follow Frank Field and John Hutton and work with David Cameron and Nick Clegg's coalition government.

The Sunday Telegraph reports this morning that Milburn will be offered the role of "social mobility tsar", with a remit to examine ways of boosting the chances of underprivileged children. The announcement may be made as early as Wednesday, the paper says.

Last year Milburn was asked to do a similar job for Gordon Brown, but his recommendations were not used by the outgoing government. Milburn has yet to talk about this latest approach.




Policy-wise, Milburn has something to offer, but politically this feels rather toxic. According to the Sunday Telegraph report:

Many will see it as a way of shoring up the Deputy Prime Minister and Lib Dem leader who is facing internal trouble in his own party over the severe spending cuts he has backed.

The appointment further highlights tensions in the coalition as the Lib Dems push for more left-wing policies.

On the right, Iain Dale for one is not happy:

First they came for Frank Field. They appointed him "Poverty Czar". I didn't speak up

Then they came for Will Hutton. They appointed him "Work Czar". I didn't speak up.

Then they came for John Hutton. They appointed him "Pensions Czar". I didn't speak up.

Today they came for Alan Milburn. They are about to appoint him "Social Mobility Czar".

Now, I'm going to speak up.

One day they might actually appoint a Conservative. But I'm not holding my breath.

Because by then, it might be a bit late.

Meanwhile, John Prescott has repeated his "collaborators" line that he used when Hutton and Field accepted coalition approaches to work together earlier in the summer. He tweeted:

So after Field & Hutton, Milburn becomes the 3rd collaborator. They collaborated to get Brown OUT. Now collaborating to keep Cameron IN

So, who gains from this move? Cameron may feel he is offering some much-needed support to his deputy, but at what cost? This appointment will surely antagonise the right, which might ask, as Dale does above, whether there isn't the talent "in-house" to do the job.

Indeed, isn't the much-vaunted Iain Duncan Smith able to answer these questions on mobility himself; isn't that what he has spent much of his post-leadership political life doing?

Jon Bernstein, former deputy editor of New Statesman, is a digital strategist and editor. He tweets @Jon_Bernstein. 

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We don't need to build more prisons - we need to send fewer people there

The government talks a good game on prisons - but at the moment, the old failed policies hold sway

Some years ago the Howard League set up an independent expert review of what should happen to the penal system. We called it Do better, do less.

Too many governments have come in with enthusiasm for doing more, in the mistaken belief that this means better. We have ended up with more prisons, more prisoners, a bulging system that costs a fortune and blights lives. It is disappointing that the new regime appears to have fallen into the same old trap.

It is a big mistake to imagine that the justice system can be asked to sort out people’s lives. Prisons rarely, very rarely, turn people into model citizens able to get a great job and settle with a family. It is naïve to think that building huge new prisons with fewer staff but lots of classrooms will help to ‘rehabilitate’ people.

Let’s turn this on its head. There are more than 80,000 men in prison at any one time, and 40,000 of them are serving long sentences. Simply giving them a few extra courses or getting them to do a bit more work at £10 a week means they are still reliant on supplementary funding from families. Imagine you are the wife or partner of a man who is serving five to ten years. Why should you welcome him back to your home and your bed after all that time if you have hardly been able to see him, you got one phone call a week, and he’s spent all those years in a highly macho environment?

The message of new prisons providing the answer to all our problems has been repeated ad nauseam. New Labour embarked on a massive prison-building programme with exactly the same message that was trotted out in the Spending Review today – that new buildings will solve all our problems. Labour even looked at selling off Victorian prisons but found it too complicated as land ownership is opaque. It is no surprise that, despite trumpeting the sell-off of Victorian prisons, the one that was announced was in fact a jail totally rebuilt in the 1980s, Holloway.

The heart of the problem is that too many people are sent to prison, both on remand and under sentence. Some 70 per cent of the people remanded to prison by magistrates do not get a prison sentence and tens of thousands get sentenced to a few weeks or months. An erroneous diagnosis of the problem has led to expensive and ineffective policy responses. I am disappointed that yet again the Ministry of Justice is apparently embarking on expansion instead of stemming the flow into the system.

A welcome announcement is the court closure programme and investment in technology. Perhaps, in the end, fewer courts will choke the flow of people into the system, but I am not optimistic.

It is so seductive for well-meaning ministers to want to sort out people’s lives. But this is not the way to do it. Homeless people stealing because they are hungry (yes, it is happening more and more) are taking up police and court time and ending up in prison. We all know that mentally ill people comprise a substantial proportion of the prison population. It is cheaper, kinder and more efficacious to invest in front line services that prevent much of the crime that triggers a criminal justice intervention.

That does leave a cohort of men who have committed serious and violent crime and will be held in custody for public safety reasons. This is where I agree with recent announcements that prison needs to be transformed. The Howard League has developed a plan for this, allowing long-term prisoners to work and earn a real wage.

The spending review was an opportunity to do something different and to move away from repeating the mistakes of the past. There is still time; we have a radical Justice Secretary whose rhetoric is redemptive and compassionate. I hope that he has the courage of these convictions.

Frances Crook is the Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform.