PMQs review: professor Miliband gives Cameron an economics lesson

The Labour leader had the stats on his side but will voters accept his distinction between 'good' borrowing and 'bad' borrowing?

It's often forgotten that Ed Balls isn't the only economist on the Labour frontbench; Ed Miliband also taught the subject at Harvard while on sabbatical from the Treasury and he gave David Cameron a suitably stern lesson at today's PMQs. In a stat-heavy assault on the coalition's economic record, he reminded Cameron that the economy had grown by just 0.4 per cent since October 2010 (it was expected to grow by more than five per cent), that the UK had grown more slowly than 17 of the G20 countries and that this was now the weakest recovery for more than a hundred years. 

Confronted by that record, Cameron played a bad hand as well as he could. He was aided by Labour MPs who foolishly cheered when he conceded that the economy shrank by 0.3 per cent in the most recent quarter, an error that the PM quickly pounced on. "Only honourable members opposite could cheer that news," he fumed. From there, he ridiculed what he called Labour's "three-point plan": "more spending, more borrowing more debt". 

After Miliband noted that the deficit so far this year was £7.2bn (7.3 per cent) higher than last year, Cameron replied, "if he thinks there's a problem with borrowing, why does he want to borrow more?" It is the question that Labour has struggled to answer since the election. The Tories' credit card analogy may be a hackneyed one but it is easier to explain to the electorate than Keynes's paradox of thrift. In response to Cameron, Miliband cried: "he's borrowing for failure!" The Labour leader's hope is that the public will distinguish between the coalition's 'bad' borrowing, driven by higher welfare bills, and his party's 'good' borrowing (a VAT cut, national insurance holiday, higher infrastructure spending and the like). But without explicitly declaring that Labour would borrow for growth (and explaining why), he risks reinforcing the impression that borrowing is always and everywhere a bad thing. 

Miliband, aware that polls show more voters continue to blame Labour (26 per cent) for the cuts than the coalition (21 per cent), has never conceded that his party would, at least temporarily, borrow more than the coalition. For now, with the public more worried about the disappearance of growth, he can avoid further scrutiny. But at some point before the election, Labour will need to say what its plans would mean for deficit reduction. Anything else will allow the Tories to claim they'd make "the same mistakes" all over again. 

Ed Miliband said that David Cameron was "borrowing for failure". Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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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.