Prisons don’t need a resignation threat. They need more money

Junior ministers promising to resign makes good headlines, but doesn’t really tackle the problem.

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Rory Stewart has caused a storm by pledging to resign if the crisis in prisons is not resolved within 12 months. He has become the second junior minister to promise to leave their post should they fail to deliver, after Heather Wheeler, the homelessness minister, said she would stand down from her ministerial role if the number of people sleeping rough continues to rise.

What both crises have in common is that they are areas that are incredibly politically easy to defund, at least in the short term. Most people are neither victims nor perpetrators of crime, which means you can get away with taking a huge amount of funding out of the justice system as a whole before anyone who might vote you out of office starts to notice. As even smaller numbers actually end up either in prison or working in prison, the prison system is even more vulnerable than the justice system as a whole. Equally, the number of people directly hit by the cuts that have led to the re-emergence of rough sleeping as a national problem after it was all but eliminated by the last Labour government is again, small.

So both were on the frontline for heavy cuts in 2010 and have continued to be so. What has happened is that in both cases, the consequences have become visible enough for them to be politically damaging to the government. Prison riots have become more common and more violent, while rough sleeping has become politically acute because it is impossible not to see it if you live in an urban or a coastal area, both of which are disproportionately likely to be places where rough sleepers end up. As, of course, the overwhelming majority of people in the United Kingdom live in an urban or a coastal area, even those people who are in no risk of ever ending up as rough sleepers themselves encounter the problem.

In both cases, what’s needed is not more ministerial changeover – one of the big problems in government is the high level of turnover, particularly at junior ministerial rank – but more money. (Or, in the case of prisons, significant reductions in the number of people we send to prison in the first place, which would mean that the current level of funding might be sustainable in the long term.)

In both cases, the chances that both Stewart and Wheeler will even be in their current positions in a year’s time is highly unlikely, as there will almost certainly be a reshuffle between now and August 2019, not least because of the high chance that there will be a new prime minister at that point. How does the pledge work then? Would Stewart quit his post as say, secretary of state for international development because his successor at the ministry of justice had failed to deliver? That doesn’t seem like a particularly sensible or effective way to hold ministers to account.

The promise to resign is semi-useful as a device to get the Treasury to spend more on areas that are still significantly easier to make spending cuts in than health, education or transport, all of which touch the lives of more people. But it doesn’t really tackle the underlying problem, which is that the reason why our prisons are a state and people are sleeping rough is that both areas have borne the brunt of close to a decade of spending cuts.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman, the EI Political Commentator of the Year, and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.