Osborne's run of luck continues as he dodges a triple-dip

The return of the economy to growth, however anaemic, allows the Chancellor to maintain the narrative that the UK is "healing".

George Osborne is currently enjoying that most precious of political commodities: luck. Having narrowly avoided an increase in the deficit earlier this week, the Chancellor has now dodged a triple-dip recession. The ONS's first estimate of GDP for Q1 of this year suggests that output rose by 0.3 per cent, three times greater than the 0.1 per cent forecast by most economists. 

Economically speaking, it makes little difference whether output is found to have marginally grown or marginally shrunk. The figures are revised by an average of 0.4 per cent and the economy is now merely the same size as it was six months ago. But the politics are all important. For Osborne, growth, however anaemic, allows him to maintain the narrative that the economy is "healing". Expectations have been so downgraded that any rise in output is now welcome. 

The return of the economy to growth will help the Tories to maintain the political momentum that they have enjoyed in recent weeks. At the same time, it will add to the pressure on Labour to outline a clearer alternative to the coalition's programme. Even after a double-dip recession, the loss of the UK's AAA credit rating and countless missed borrowing targets, polls show that Osborne and Cameron are still preferred as an economic team to Ed Miliband and Ed Balls. By two-to-one (59-29 per cent), the public still believe the cuts are necessary and by 36-24 per cent, they still blame the last Labour government more than the coalition for them. In the three years since the government came to power, these ratings have failed to shift in Labour's favour. This fact, combined with the prospect of a sustained period of growth, is one reason why, for the first time in months, Tory MPs are starting to believe that they can win in 2015. 

Chancellor George Osborne leaves Downing Street on April 10, 2013 in London. 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.