7 April 2011

Kerr & Gray at odds on the cost of Labour's knife policy...

To recap, as I outlined in yesterday's post, Labour lost on the cost of mandatory jail terms, Iain Gray assured Bernard Ponsonby that Labour's policy to jail all those caught carrying knives in public would imprison fewer than 1,345 new prisoners, in the magnitude of "several hundred". On last night's BBC Newsnicht, Gordon Brewer asked Andy Kerr about the cost of the policy, arguing that it was "not only uncosted, but uncostable". I quote Mr Kerr's answer, verbatim. Call me old fashioned, but I prefer people to speak in complete sentences...

Andy Kerr: "3,000 cases, 1,000 go to jail, 2,000 of them don't. Six month sentence. 700 places currently available. Low Moss coming back on stream. Put in £20,000,000 contingency fund. Fully costed proposal and we'll deliver on it. That's what the facts tell us."

Where the devil did this 3,000 figure come from, you might well wonder? I can't fathom it either. Kerr seems to be suggesting, contra Gray, that the number of new prisoners jailed by Labour may amount to 2,000 rather than "several hundred, but less than 1,345" - the estimation insisted on by his leader.  Indeed, as Kerr noted in an earlier section of the interview (at 2:30) "At the moment of the 3000 cases of those carrying knives, 2000 of them don't get a prison sentence. We want that to change"*. That seems an exceedingly clear declaration of his position to me. To put this in context, take a look at the graph I've attached above. It shows changes in the average daily Scottish prison population since 1900. It shows, to my mind rather startlingly, that since the year 2000, in the lifetime of devolution, the Scottish prison population has already increased by around 2,000. According to the Scottish Government's latest prison population statistics (Prison Statistics in Scotland 2009-10), in 2009-10, Scotland's average daily number of prisoners numbered at 7,964. If Kerr seriously considers that Labour's knife policy may well add another 2,000 prisoners to that figure, we're talking about a 25% expansion in Scotland's prison population in a single swipe of the legislator's pen. 

Moreover, we have very good reasons to question whether the "contingency fund" of £20 million Labour will set aside to fulfil this policy will be remotely sufficient. As I demonstrated yesterday, the figure of £20 million (referred to by Kerr) and £21 million (accepted by Gray), is based on taking the Scottish Prison Service's estimated cost per year, per prisoner - halving it to reflect the six month mandatory minimum sentence - and multiplying it by 1,345. Extrapolations of this sort have clear problematic potential. However, if we apply the methodology used thus far, conscious of its inexactitudes and limitations, we find that Mr Kerr's calculations of the cost of Labour's proposals seems to be running at least £10,000,000 short of the funding which seems indicatively required.

In 2008-09, the Scottish Prison Service estimated that the cost of each prison place was £31,106. If simply halved, an estimate of the cost of an individual six month sentence is £15,553. I take Kerr to be implying, at the high end of their estimates, that Labour envisage 2,000 new prisoners might be locked up under their knife crime proposals. Multiplying up this SPS daily rate - this takes us to £31,106,000, a cost of at least £10,000,000 more than the contingency fund figures accepted by Gray and quoted by Kerr.

I'm at a loss to understand Labour's argument on this, even without entering into the robust questions of whether the mandatory imprisonment policy will do any remote good or enhance the social welfare. Fergus Ewing's Scottish Government figures have been available for over a year now. Having had all this time, it is decidedly, unconscionably queer that Labour's representatives seem so confused on the number of folk who might be jailed under this policy. Will Labour be jailing several hundred (Gray's position), or several thousand (Kerr's position, as best I could comprehend its string of staccato propositions)? Even if you believe that there will be a deterrent effect - a contestable argument - it seems to me entirely reasonable to suspect that such deterrence might take a good while to resonate in the community, and come to effect conduct. That has clear implications for the short-medium term cost of maintaining a very significantly increased prison population. If Labour expect jailing "several hundred" to cost in the region of £21 million, why is their contingency fund, envisaging an expanded population of several thousand, also pegged to a slim £20 million? Something surely must be amiss...

*A late addition to the post, in the interests of absolute clarity about what Mr Kerr said, and the status of the 2,000 cases he has in mind.


  1. It's not going to act as a deterrent. Killing people results in many years in jail, but there are still murders committed in Scotland. Killing used to result in capital punishment, but people still committed murders.

    The kind of people who would be deterred by this policy are the type of people who already wouldn't carry a knife. We need to focus on preventing the situations which lead to people carrying knives in the first place, and mandatory 6 month sentences are so blatantly not the answer.

    When will such reactionary politics stop being attractive to large sections of the electorate?

  2. Andy Kerr fails the Turing Test.

  3. They just go on digging that hole.

    If they had any brains they could be dangerous.

  4. An Duine Gruamach7 April 2011 at 12:49

    Lallans - I'm a at a wee bit o a loss here - is thon twanty million feigur per anum or ower the life o the pairliament?

  5. They have no intention of actually doing it, so the costings have probably not been worked out in any coherent way.

    It's a bit like their policy to provide an apprenticeship place for everyone who is suitably qualified. If they were remotely serious about that, they would be able to put some kind of figure on it.

    The Labourites out there will say ah hah but the SNP manifesto in 2007 contained various pledges which weren't properly costed and weren't implemented. And that would be a fair cop guv in some instances.

    But I would be very surprised if the 2011 SNP manifesto contained any such pledges. Once bitten twice shy and all that.

    Which makes it all the more difficult to understand why Labour, with 8 years in government behind them and 4 years of taunting the SNP over broken pronises, should have come up with such a litany of nonsense for 2011.

    Anyone would think they don't actually want to win ............

  6. DougDaniel,

    I should say that I share your scepticism about the practical deterring effect of this proposal - and wouldn't want to concede that ground too Labour too freely. My comments on it in this post reflect, I suspect, my legal education. In particular, it is rather a neat legal technique, to try to demonstrate why your opponent's argument fails, even if a key line of their argument is accepted. So it is with deterrence, I believe. Even if mandatory prison terms did have a deterrent effect, it strikes me as exceedingly implausible that such an effect would be felt from the get-go. As a result, Labour really do have to contend with the prospect of an increased prison population in the short-medium term.


    Neatly put! Not, perhaps, his most elegant piece of political advocacy.


    I'm having trouble finding the sense of it myself. On Twitter, one pro-Labour fellow is trying to argue that Kerr wasn't actually suggesting locking up 2,000 extra people - or increasing the Scottish prison population by 25%. I find this deeply unconvincing.

  7. An Duine Gruamach,

    Some of the confusion here is owed to the fact that there are a couple of £20-21 million figures floating about. Firstly, there is the Liberal estimate of the cost of higher prisoner numbers, secondly there is the Labour claim that their costing for the policy also amounts to £20-21 million. Labour have also been quoted in terms of the cost being £60 million over three years.

    The calculation is pretty basic, but it is annual. As a result, it will involve ongoing expenditure, at least in the short-medium term well beyond three years, if Labour's policy was adopted and maintained. Labour's hope is that the numbers fall off as a result of the deterrence effect. About this, I'm highly sceptical. For some of the reasons mentioned by Gordon Brewer on Newsnicht, it seems more likely to me that those imprisoned for knife crime would increase and increase - without falling off.


    As I've noted before, most recently at the very end of yesterday's post on this topic, I've been told a number of times by pro-Labour folk that this policy is "hot air" which they hope will prove politically useful. And grimly, it just might.

  8. They'll have to wrest my penknife from my cold dead hands...

    A friend of my nephew, having just passed his test, bought himself a banger and proceeded to run it off the road.
    The vehicle ignited, not with the bang beloved of Hollywood, but more like a Boy Scouts smouldering campfire.
    You have no doubt guessed it by now; the seatbelt was stuck and his trainers were melting to his feet.
    A passing leatherman wielding lorry driver had him out in a trice.
    Blades can be used for saving lives too...

  9. It's the new enlightenment:
    X ~ Y = X ~ Y = X2 ~ Y2 = BBB

  10. Ah, BBB as in Bull droppings baffles brains I presume. But then, I was kick out of the maths class so it may mean something else

  11. Doug said:

    "It's not going to act as a deterrent. Killing people results in many years in jail, but there are still murders committed in Scotland. Killing used to result in capital punishment, but people still committed murders."

    But I suspect that if murder was 'decriminalised' then killings would increase significantly!!

    And slightly off topic but on the same theme, it's interesting to juxtapose LPW's graph showing an increasing prison population with the 30-year low in crime we keep hearing about!

    And as regards wrongdoing at the other end of the seriousness scale, I wonder how the supposed near 100% compliance with the smoking ban with little in the way of enforcement measures compares to the widespread flouting of the ban on using mobile phones while driving, for example, despite a fair number of fines being handed out?

  12. Got it in one Dram - but its better than that, it can be applied to everything and mean something or nothing.

    It can square circles and turn truths into lies, lies into truths or fill vacuity with words - it is in effect the grail of political purpose.

  13. Stuart, Doug,

    There is a fascinating literature on "law as regulation", in the broad sense, interested in what role, if any law has in terms of bringing about or constraining conduct. Although the studies have different approaches and conclusions, they tend to emphasise the limits of law's regulatory capacity - emphasising the way broader social values regulate human conduct. The next-day absence of smoke in Scotland's pubs, after the Act came into effect, is a fascinating case in point.

    On knife crime, the broader social context and the role of apprehensions about legal sanctions, you might be interested in this post from September 2010, which links to and summarises two pieces of fascinating research on attitudes and knife-carrying behaviour amongst young Scots.

  14. LPW - excellent stuff. Rather easy to tear Labour to shreds, but good on you for doing so. I just wish that 'mainstream media' would do this.

    Can I suggest that you get tore in to Andy Kerr's Newnight comments on the knife crime costs to the NHS? He said, repeatedly, that it equated to £500million, or 3.6% of the NHS budget. I can't believe this figures, way way too high. My very quick estimate, from published NHS statistics, suggest that the costs might be in the order of £5million. My quick estimate might not be accurate, but is surely closer than £500million. Needs someone to do more working on this, is it £5million, £10million, whatever.

  15. The £500 million figure comes from the campaigning group "Medics Against Violence". I can't find any analysis that backs up that number and NHS Scotland doesn't keep figures on it.

    In 2007 an anlysis estimated that cost of ALL violence to the NHS in the west of Scotland was £3.5m per annum.

    Since all the evidence is that overall violence and specifically knife crime is worst in the West, £5m pa for all NHS costs due to violence in all Scotland seems most likely.

  16. Anonymous, oldnat,

    That issue is on next week's list of things to do. I didn't want to bore the socks off of everyone by devoting a whole week to the issue of knife crime. Certainly, the claims about the cost to the NHS deserve closer examination, in the spirit of fair-minded scrutiny of the proposals. Personally, I think Kerr's account of minimum sentencing on Newsnicht was most concerning, as was his fobbing off of the scenario put to him by Brewer. I've had my say before on mandatory sentencing in the area of gun possession (cf this and the happy conclusion to Gail Cochrane's case). I certainly intend to give this issue a thorough going over before polling day.

  17. On Kerr's NHS knife crime costs: seems that the MAV '£500million' was for all assaults, not just knife crime. Check the MAV quotes in Herald and Scotman in 2008.

    That alone would blow a big hole in Kerr's statements. After all, what proportion of all hospital assault cases are due to knife crime?

    But, I would still query the £500million even if it were based on all assaults. Seems way too high for me. Would it be a UK figure? I don't know but it might fit better.

    Good luck with your digging - plenty to find, I think.

  18. and as a ps to my comment above.

    Oldnat says that NHS Scotland doesn't keep costs on these. I'm sure you are correct. But NHS Scotland do publish figures on costs and hospital cases (admissions, A&E) that would allow some ballpark estimates. And there might be other research out there that would help.

  19. Knife crime and NHS costs:

    StraightStatistics say that Labour's figures are 'fantasy':


  20. Belatedly, thanks for the link Anonymous. Your hunch was fully borne out, as we saw on Newsnicht, by closer investigation!