Prisoners of Tory mistrust

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PUT to one side the sound and fury of Thursday's debate in the House of Commons; the tiresome details of who said what to whom about the suspension of a prison governor; the arid arguments about the difference between policy and operation; the jokes about the man of Straw and the postponement of Howard's End. Consider instead what ought to be the central issue. What kind of Prison Service have the Conservatives provided for the country?

Let there be no doubt that this is Tory property. The Tories are obsessed with locking people up. Punishment is what they are supposed to be good at. Further, the Prison Service has had "agency" status (freedom from operational Whitehall control) since 1993. A Tory Home Secretary appointed Derek Lewis as director-general from private business where, in the Tory view, all virtue and wisdom reside. Mr Lewis then inflicted on the service the best of modern management techniques: a Statement of Purpose, a Vision, five Values, six Goals, seven Strategic Priorities and eight Key Performance Indicators.

What does last week's Learmont Report tell us about the service? It suffers from desperately low morale, confusion of purpose and "widespread frustration over the lack of decisive leadership". Its officers do not know whether humanitarian care or tight security is the primary goal. Despite the supposed arm's-length relationship, the service headquarters received 1,000 communications from ministers in 83 working days, with the result, according to Learmont, that it regarded "upwards communication" as "its main raison d'etre". But this did not stop it communicating downwards. A typical prison, the inquiry found, received an average of 230 letters, 65 faxes and 24 E-mails each day. Of these, 12 per cent came from headquarters. The report contains a diverting little diagram showing that, extrapolated to all 130 prisons, the service receives, within four months, sufficient paper to make a mountain 800 feet higher than Ben Nevis. No wonder that governors gave staff and inmates the impression "that paperwork had a higher priority than operational activities and that work on prison wings was not important". The present mood was best summed up by a senior manager who quoted Gaius Petronius (AD 66): "We tend to meet any new situation by re-organising, and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress, while producing confusion, inefficiency and demoralisation".

Haven't we heard all this before somewhere? Of course we have. We have heard it in the schools where teachers complain bitterly of the perpetual stream of government-originated instructions, often contradicting each other, and where the national curriculum, dictating in expensive, unprecedented and sometimes comic detail what children should learn, has been altered on innumerable occasions. We have heard it in the universities where both teaching and research must now be assessed in triplicate and where quantity rather than quality of publication is what clinches academic promotion. We have heard it in the health service where paper-shuffling bureaucracy has grown at the expense of medical staff. Ask any public sector professional - nurses, teachers, doctors, prison governors - and they will tell you that they are now overwhelmed by assessments, records, files, checksheets, to the extent that they regard filling out forms correctly and promptly as far more important to their careers than dealing with patients or children or prisoners.

Why the paradox? Why has the party that makes so much of its dislike of bureaucracy, waste and over-regulation multiplied these evils in the past 16 years? Because the Tories cannot trust anybody who works in the public sector. The bedrock belief of modern Conservatism is that human beings are motivated purely by rational self-interest. Nobody is likely to bend his or her back save for the prospect of profit or high salary. In the public sector, where neither exists in any abundance, high performance can only be maintained by constant vigilance and constant supervision, an "audit culture", as Simon Jenkins calls it in a book published last week. Short on carrots, the public sector must run on sticks. And so the prison governor, fearful of his Whitehall masters, fills out his Key Performance Indicator forms, while the inmates slip through the perimeter wall.