A simplistic military attitude does not make for an effective prison watchdog

Judged by the manner in which he expressed his views in his interview with Mary Riddell (1 November), Sir David Ramsbotham is on the ego trip of a lifetime and trying desperately to live up to his Rambo nickname. Everything about the way the Prison Service conducts its business is "mad", "useless" or a "disgrace" and people need to be "hammered". Things are either black or white, there is nothing in between and everybody is out of step but him.

Unfortunately, running prisons is not quite as easy as Ramsbotham - who, I am sure, would describe himself as "just a simple soldier" - seems to imagine it ought to be, and his naive views are not helpful either to those charged with that task or to the Home Secretary, whose ire at his chief inspector's behaviour is, not surprisingly, beginning to show.

Leaving aside Ramsbotham's gratuitous pronouncement about the future treatment of the killers of James Bulger, what should cause most concern is his obvious lack of understanding of his role as chief inspector of prisons. The chief inspector is essentially the eyes and ears of the Home Secretary. His key function is to ensure that the Home Secretary does not have the wool pulled over his eyes by the professional managers in the Prison Service, whose natural instinct, when things go wrong, is to cover it up or find excuses for it. Most of what goes wrong in prisons can cause damaging political fall-out and home secretaries need all the help they can get in equipping themselves to challenge the Prison Service establishment about the way it is doing its job. And I speak as one who, as prisons director of personnel and finance, was at the heart of that establishment for a number of years.

It follows that, to the extent a chief inspector alienates the Home Secretary and the service itself by causing maximum public embarrassment to both, his effectiveness will be severely reduced.

Ramsbotham's views on how the service should handle the Prison Officers' Association (POA), his dismissal of the importance of financial control and performance measurement, his general rubbishing of drug policies, education programmes and so on, are more a commentary on his simplistic, military-style approach to management than they are on the Prison Service's attempt to make the most of what is always going to be, by its very nature, a bad job - as well as an incredibly complex one.

To quote Lyndon Johnson, Sir David Ramsbotham is supposed to be inside the (Prison Service) tent pissing out, not outside it pissing in. If he feels so strongly about what he is finding as he does his job that he has to speak out publicly, implying, by doing so, that his advice is not being heeded, he should resign - which is what he should now be contemplating.

Eric Caines
Brasted, Kent

This article first appeared in the 08 November 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - To uplift the souls of the people

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When will the government take action to tackle the plight of circus animals?

Britain is lagging behind the rest of the world - and innocent animals are paying the price. 

It has been more than a year since the Prime Minister reiterated his commitment to passing legislation to impose a ban on the suffering of circus animals in England and Wales. How long does it take to get something done in Parliament?

I was an MP for more than two decades, so that’s a rhetorical question. I’m well aware that important issues like this one can drag on, but the continued lack of action to help stop the suffering of animals in circuses is indefensible.

Although the vast majority of the British public doesn’t want wild animals used in circuses (a public consultation on the issue found that more than 94 per cent of the public wanted to see a ban implemented and the Prime Minister promised to prohibit the practice by January 2015, no government bill on this issue was introduced during the last parliament.

A private member’s bill, introduced in 2013, was repeatedly blocked in the House of Commons by three MPs, so it needs a government bill to be laid if we are to have any hope of seeing this practice banned.

This colossal waste of time shames Britain, while all around the world, governments have been taking decisive action to stop the abuse of wild animals in circuses. Just last month, Catalonia’s Parliament overwhelmingly voted to ban it. While our own lawmakers dragged their feet, the Netherlands approved a ban that comes into effect later this year, as did Malta and Mexico. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, North America’s longest-running circus, has pledged to retire all the elephants it uses by 2018. Even in Iran, a country with precious few animal-welfare laws, 14 states have banned this archaic form of entertainment. Are we really lagging behind Iran?

The writing has long been on the wall. Only two English circuses are still clinging to this antiquated tradition of using wild animals, so implementing a ban would have very little bearing on businesses operating in England and Wales. But it would have a very positive impact on the animals still being exploited.

Every day that this legislation is delayed is another one of misery for the large wild animals, including tigers, being hauled around the country in circus wagons. Existing in cramped cages and denied everything that gives their lives meaning, animals become lethargic and depressed. Their spirits broken, many develop neurotic and abnormal behaviour, such as biting the bars of their cages and constantly pacing. It’s little wonder that such tormented creatures die far short of their natural life spans.

Watching a tiger jump through a fiery hoop may be entertaining to some, but we should all be aware of what it entails for the animal. UK laws require that animals be provided with a good quality of life, but the cruelty inherent in confining big, wild animals, who would roam miles in the wild, to small, cramped spaces and forcing them to engage in unnatural and confusing spectacles makes that impossible in circuses.

Those who agree with me can join PETA’s campaign to urge government to listen to the public and give such animals a chance to live as nature intended.


The Right Honourable Ann Widdecombe was an MP for 23 years and served as Shadow Home Secretary. She is a novelist, documentary maker and newspaper columnist.