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Wednesday, January 09, 2013 

Couldn't organise an audit in an accountants.

It says something about just what a pig's ear the coalition is making of almost everything at the moment that it can't even get the launch of an audit into itself right.  If you thought that Monday's mid-term review was pointless and self-indulgent rather than illuminating of what the government's achieved over the past two and a half years, then this is the political equivalent of Peter Jackson imagining that everyone would dearly love to see a short book extended into not 2 but 3 separate films.  Monday's review was 52 pages no one was ever going to read; today's audit is 122, and it's effectively a re-hash of the review except with a little more often completely irrelevant detail.  

You can understand completely why there was discussion within Downing Street as to whether it should be released or not, as it seems designed to annoy everyone.  For a start it doesn't keep a tally of which pledges have broken, as this would apparently have been "too simplistic"; translated that means would have given hacks an easy negative headline.  Not doing so though has just pissed them off instead, as they've had to do it themselves, with differing results.  The Telegraph this morning claimed 70 pledges hadn't been kept, while Andrew Sparrow has calculated it at around 33.  Either way it's meaningless as this is the coalition marking its own work, hence why there is again no mention of the double-dip recession or the lack of growth, while it brushes over the failure to meet the "supplementary element" of the fiscal mandate, that debt as a proportion of GDP should be falling by 2015-16.  In fact, as Jonathan Portes has argued, "Plan A" as a whole is effectively dead, Osborne and friends just haven't admitted as much.  

When Cameron then claimed that the audit would be "full, frank and unvarnished" he was as per usual, talking out of his hole.  The whole idea of this pledge system was foolish in the first place, especially when in all the government made hundreds of the damn things.  It was especially pointless when the coalition had no intention whatsoever of keeping some of them: look at the one pledging no further top-down reorganisations of the NHS, which was promptly broken within weeks.  And as you might expect, the ones that have to be marked as failures are mostly the major ones, whether it be on civil liberties where the government is doing the opposite to bringing an end to the keep of internet records without good reason, on child poverty, protecting those on low incomes, Europe, or increasing capital gains tax to a level similar to that of income tax.

What use the document will have beyond this initial sniggering, as that is frankly all it's produced, is dubious in the extreme.  An MP can't direct a constituent to it as they'll wonder what on earth it is they've been told to read, while it's far too subjective to be used by anyone else.  More to the point is that pledges are worthless when they're pledges to introduce bad policy, something the coalition has done to abundance, a case in point being the police commissioners no one wanted and almost no one voted for. 

Much the same can be said of today's announcement from Chris Grayling on the privatisation of the probation service.  Anyone who isn't Grayling looking at the problems this is bound to throw up would think a major pilot scheme (the long-standing scheme at Peterborough jail is no indication of how how it would work nationwide, with many different providers) would be in order, not least because of the failures both of the Pathways to Work scheme under Labour and Grayling's own Work programme, neither of which bode well for the success of further payment by results schemes.  Add in that we're dealing with public protection, which in the past has been the downfall of many past home secretaries, and caution would be the obvious option.

Not for Grayling though.  There are times when you simply have to do something, and this apparently is one of those.  It's certainly true that re-offending rates are far too high, yet there isn't the slightest indication that private firms will be any better at stopping those out after serving a short sentence from re-offending than the state is currently.  Indeed, that the probation service will continue to look after the most serious and high risk offenders is hardly a vote of confidence in the capabilities of those that will shortly be submitting bids, and you can guarantee it'll be the same old companies that have cocked it up so marvellously in the past: G4S, Serco and Capita will almost certainly be first in the queue.

As Harry Fletcher argues, it's difficult not to see this both as purely ideological and to cut costs to the bone.  If it wasn't the former, then Grayling would have expanded the pilot scheme; if it isn't the latter, then there's no reason whatsoever why the probation service can't also take control of the new requirement to monitor those out after serving less than 12 months.  Regardless of the motive, the responsibility will still lie with the secretary of state, and anything with the potential to bring Grayling down can't be all bad.

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