Prevention is better than cure; in the long run it may also be cheaper. Yet as a nation we continue to pour vast amounts of public cash into expensive services that deal mainly with the symptoms rather than the causes of social problems. Shifting resources to upstream activity that can foster positive behaviour remains one of our greatest public policy challenges.
We are all familiar with the arguments: healthier lifestyles and more effective primary care would reduce the number of patients needing hospital admission; a greater supply of affordable social housing would reduce the huge taxpayer subsidy paid to private landlords through housing benefit. But organisational change on the scale required takes time and those with a vested interest in the status quo often stand in the way.
When I was the prisons minister, organisations would come to me with proposals for alternatives to custody that were imaginative and on the faces of it likely to be effective
; but it was often impossible to fund them because most of the money spent on offenders was literally locked up in the prison system. The average annual cost of a prison place is currently just under £40,000.
In government Labour expanded capacity
- 26,000 new prison places since 1997 – and focu ssed on making prisons more effective in terms of education . healthcare and reduced reoffending. This had limited impact and the numbers in prison continued to rise. Particularly frustrating was our inability to devise a more effective way of dealing with prisoners who receive short sentences.
In preparation for the next Labour
Government we need to be more radical. There won’t be any extra money so new initiatives will have to be funded by phasing out some of the existing provision. Voters rightly want criminals to be punished - and those who pose a threat to safety and commit serious offences should get lengthy prison sentences. But the electorate also want less crime and better value for money. So, we should be bold.
We should select one of our main city regions, make a clear commitment to close one of the prisons in that area – say in 5 years time – and use the projected savings to fund a substantial programme of preventative work and intensive community punishments. We should invite local authorities to work closely with the prison and probation services, helping to co-ordinate and commission the additional provision of supported housing, drug and alcohol treatment, and training for employment.
These new community based services would need to be paid for in advance of the prison being wound down. Funds could be provided through Social Impact Bonds, designed to cover the up-front costs as well as drive better outcomes. Because of the commitment to close the prison, investors would be confident of getting their money back plus a higher return if reoffending rates fell.
And if we can turn the tanker round in an area like this, why not on other key issues like health and social care?
Paul Goggins is MP for Wythenshawe & Sale East and a former prisons minister
This article was originally published in the Fabian Society’s Summer edition of the Fabian Review. It forms part of the Fabian Society’s Next State project. We’ll be publishing other articles from the series this week.