PMQs review: Cameron wrongfoots Miliband on the banks

After being surprised by Cameron's commitment to banking reform, the Labour leader struggled to regain his poise.

Even before Ed Miliband got to his feet at today's PMQs, David Cameron had seized the advantage. Noting that Tristram Hunt and David Miliband were among those who would fall foul of Labour's new policy of banning unqualified teachers, he quipped: "another example of brotherly love". 

Things didn't improve much for Miliband after that. He challenged Cameron to say whether the government would use the banking bill to introduce new criminal penalties for bankers (anticipating an equivocal response) but was wrongfooted when Cameron simply replied: "we will be using that bill to take these important steps". After that, the Labour leader's subsequent (and pre-scripted) declaration that "if the government doesn't put down the amendments, we will" fell entirely flat. 

Miliband did have a smart statistic to hand, noting that bonuses had risen by 64 per cent in the last year, principally due to bankers deferring them in order to benefit from the 50p tax cut, but this only offered Cameron an opportunity to launch attack after attack on Labour for being at the wheel when Northern Rock issued 125% mortgages, when Fred Goodwin received his knighthood and when the boom turned to bust.

Bonuses, he pointed out, were 85 per cent lower now than in 2007-08, demanding that Labour finally apologise for its mismanagement. Miliband and Ed Balls have, of course, repeatedly admitted that Labour was wrong to regulate the banks so laxly but one can hardly blame Cameron for seeking to make them do so again.

Miliband declared at one point that he wasn't going to "take lectures from the guy who was the adviser on Black Wednesday" but his history lesson will resonate less with the public than Cameron's. That the Tories were calling for less, not more regulation at the time is, politically speaking, irrelevant. It is governments, not oppositions, that get the blame. 

Today's session was also notable for Cameron's refusal to deny that the government is considering increasing interest rates on student loans taken out in the last 15 years. After Vince Cable and Danny Alexander rejected the story as "false", this offers Labour a chance to go back on the attack.

Asked whether he had ever had any discussions with Lynton Crosby "about plain packaging of cigarettes or the minimum pricing of alcohol", Cameron replied: "I can tell you that Lynton Crosby has never lobbied me on anything", an answer likely to come under considerable scrutiny. But his pay-off was sharp; the only thing the pair discussed, he said, was "how we destroy the credibility of the Labour Party" but Crosby was not doing "as good a job as the party opposite". 

David Cameron and Ed Miliband walk through the Members' Lobby to listen to the Queen's Speech at the State Opening of Parliament on May 8, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Michael Gove's quiet revolution could transform prisoner education

To anyone with a passing interest in prisoner education it is clear that current levels of education and training are simply inadequate.

Justice Secretary Michael Gove is quietly embarking on the most substantive prison education reform programme for a generation. In September, Gove announced that Dame Sally Coates would chair a review of the provision and quality of education in prisons, the results of which are expected shortly.

To anyone with a passing interest in prisoner education it is clear that current levels of education and training are simply inadequate. In 2014, Ofsted reported that education levels across the British prison system were inadequate, suggesting that “very few prisoners are getting the opportunity to develop the skills and behaviours they need for work.” Between 2011/12 and 2013/14 the number of prisoners achieving a level 1 or 2 qualification in Mathematics fell by a third, and since 2010 the number of prisoners studying for an Open University degree has dropped by 37%.

In light of these damning statistics, Gove’s calls for prisons to become “places of education” is to be welcomed. The most obvious result of improved opportunities for training and education is that upon leaving prison offenders will be more likely to secure employment and less likely to reoffend. Less tangible, but no less important, limited opportunities for education hinder aspiration and prevent the justice system from acting as a conduit to improving society at large. Too often offenders are unable to develop their potential as citizens and contribute accordingly. Education is a powerful force in building offenders’ confidence and helping to engage with their communities upon release: helping to break the cycle of offending.

In tandem with enhanced opportunities for education, skills and training, Gove has promised greater autonomy for prison governors. Currently, the Skills Funding Agency manages the Offenders’ Learning and Skills Service (OLASS) to connect offender education with mainstream provision. Speaking before the APPG on Penal Affairs, Dame Sally suggested that “many governors feel very frustrated by their lack of ability to have any say in the education delivered.  If we want the governors to be accountable, they have to have the autonomy to contract for this for themselves, or employ their own teaching staff.”

The principle of increased flexibility is a good one. A significant minority of prisoners already have qualifications and require opportunity to build upon them. The education pathways available to them will be quite different to those offenders who enter prison with limited numeracy and literacy skills. However, the high-profile failure of private suppliers to deliver even the most basic services, raises questions as to whether major outsourcing firms will be able to provide these.

In 2014, A4E prematurely pulled out of a £17m contract to deliver education and training to prisoners in 12 London prisons on the grounds that it was unable to run the contract at a profit. This was not the first time that A4E had prematurely terminated a prison education contract. In 2008 the firm ended a similar contract to provide education in eight Kent prisons, again citing huge losses.

Recognising such failures, the Prime Minister has argued that his government’s reform program would “allow new providers and new ideas to flourish”, but the steps to achieving this are unclear. Identifying the difficulty smaller providers – particularly those from the third sector – currently have in winning and delivering contracts is a far easier task than redesigning the contracting system to improve their chances.

There are three steps that could act as a starting point. First, a review of commissioning to ensure a plurality of providers, particularly from small and medium-sized organisations should be considered, with payments-by-results the favoured means of remuneration. Second, providers and experts should be empowered to contribute to the reform process that follows the Coates Review’s publication. Third, it is clear that while a universal standard of education must be set, providers and governors should be empowered to experiment and innovate to seek results above this. In sacrificing universality it may be possible to improve methods and achieve better results in future.

Reforming the prison system is not a task that will be easy, nor one that will be quick. To ensure its long-term success it is vital that education and skills providers’ voices are heard and that the government develops forums through which ideas can be shared. For too long talent, resources and time have been wasted through mismanagement and poor provision. Now is the time to reverse this and ensure that the justice system delivers rehabilitation and improved educational outcomes.