6 April 2011

SP2011: Labour lost on the cost of mandatory jail terms...

So our friends in the Scottish Labour party have launched their election manifesto, Fighting for what really matters, amid unexpected alarum and discord in Clydebank College. A tripped fire-alarm howled its complaint, ushering the assembled pressers out into the rain. Superstitious diviners and political seers will doubtless be wondering if this early skin-soaked interruption represents an ominous portent for Labour's campaign, or a confusing, ambivalent sign of a divine smile over their attempts to punt the Snark into Bute House. You can scrutinise the whole document for yourselves. I wanted to pluck out a single issue for the moment: Labour's proposals to introduce mandatory prison sentences for any soul in Scotland, caught with a jackboot dagger, a poniard in your pocket or a stiletto in your garter. As regular readers will know, this is an issue which much animated me during Holyrood's last session. Their manifesto includes a quotation from John Muir, who was active (but unsuccessful) in the Scottish Parliament's third term, calling for mandatory prison penalties for all prosecuted and convicted of carrying knives. Muir's evidence before the Justice Committee was one of the most animated, ambivalent and interesting parliamentary scenes of the last four years. I wrote about why at some length here, but here is an excerpt...

Here is a man whose son has been killed, still full of anger and resentment, still justly so. That I can understand. Deciding to plonk him down in front of the committee to share his views was an excellent thing to do. A real rebuke to treating these issues too abstractly. That is fine as far as it goes. But don’t let’s indulge in a particularly gruesome form of identity politics, where a dead man’s father imagines himself or is treated by others as if he has all the wisdom and knowledge in the world about how to make Scotland a safer place. Asked by Robert Brown about the known problems with prison, that the deterrence effect is a willow-the-wisp, or in half-response to his fellow witness, Chief Constable David Strang’s opposition to mandatory prison measures -  Muir asked, blazing, “what about my son?” Again and again, he raised this terrifying spectre of a dead young man, his empty gaze challenging all those who disagree with mandatory prison terms. I’m absolutely not saying that Muir's experience is irrelevant to what the parliament is considering. But we should be cautious, very cautious, about the easy translation which John Muir and the Labour Party suggest. Muir’s citation is aggressive, wide eyed, fundamentally the exhumation of a corpse to silence the living, echoing again and again Muir’s earlier appalling remarks that “Anyone who disregards moves to toughen the sentencing laws on knife crime will be seen by the public as having victims’ blood on their hands.”

Quoth today's Labour manifesto on this very subject, which promises that...

Scottish Labour has listened to the concerns of knife crime campaigners and the tens of thousands of Scots who want the Government to crack down on knife criminals. We will take strong action and introduce mandatory minimum custodial sentences for knife crime in Scotland. We are very clear – if you carry a knife, you should go to jail. We will also work with the Scottish Sentencing Council to investigate whether to review the minimum sentence for knife murderers, as has been done in England and Wales.

I'm mildly perplexed as to why this pledge makes no specific reference to what minimum Labour would legislate for. Certainly, their past plans have been based on a six-month scheme. Why they do not simply say so in their papers is thoroughly bemusing. Needless to say, no reference is made in the manifesto to the likely cost of this scheme, how many offenders the party anticipate would receive the proposed mandatory prison sentences in the future, nor how Labour intend to afford it in these straightened financial times. The STV's Bernard Ponsonby took up the issue of cost with Iain Gray at some length in a recent interview, harrying him for details on two key points. Firstly, how many extra prisoners would be locked up under these proposals; and secondly, how much would this increase in the Scottish prison population actually cost?

Bernard Ponsonby: Just to be clear, in terms of the manifesto, you will have set aside a sum of money which will be able to ensure that you are able to implement that policy?

Iain Gray: We believe that it is possible to send those convicted of carrying a knife to jail.

Ponsonby: Have you set aside - 

Gray: There is a prison building programme which we'll continue. There are prison places which are there but the biggest thing, Bernard, is that Scotland can't afford to continue to spend resources, for example, £500,000,000 every year in the NHS every year.

Ponsonby: If this policy of yours was in place now, how many more people would be in jail?

Gray: We think it would be a matter of several hundred.

Ponsonby: What is your source for that?

Gray: We believe that knife crime would be significantly less than what we've seen in recent times.

Ponsonby: Where is the evidence that it will be several hundred?

Gray: That is evidence based on ... eh ... what has happened in the past.

Ponsonby proceeded to suggest to Gray that the mandatory incarcerations would cost an additional £21,000,000 to implement, a magnitude which Gray accepted, reassuring Bernard and the Scottish public that the resources would, could and should be found - somewhere. Snarkly evasions despite, what data is there on these two crucial questions of (a) the number of new prisoners and (b) the increased financial costs of maintaining them in jail? Ponsonby referred to parliamentary questions posed by the Liberal Robert Brown in 2010, which cast some light on sentencing in cases of knife-carrying. Here is the detail arising from that question which Gray was stumbling over, and which I'm told that our oleaginous Andy Kerr struggled to provide on Radio Scotland this morning. There are at least two new categories of people who’d go to jail under this Labour policy. 

(1) New prisoners arising from previously non-custodial disposals...

Firstly, all of those convicted of “having in a public place an article with a blade or point”. In 2008/09, 1,847 individuals were convicted of having had a weapon about them, of which 669 of them were handed down prison sentences. Under Labour's scheme, the whole cohort would shuffle through the penal portals. This would have made for 1,178 new prisoners in that year, with those cases disposed of by fines or by community sentences joining the rest in jail for at least six months. This figure does not even take into account those persons prosecuted for possession of knives as offensive weapons. According to the minister, knife-bearing made up 22% of those convicted of possessing an offensive weapon, a total of 370 persons in 2008/09. Unfortunately, the available statistics do not allow us to disaggregate sentencing outcomes within the broader category of "possessing an offensive weapon", focussing only of those whose offensive weapons were knives. However, there will doubtlessly be convicts in this category, caught by Labour's proposals, however indeterminate their number.

(2) More prisoners, as a result of extended custodial sentences...

We also have to look at those who are already given custodial sentences. Many panels were sentenced to periods of less than Labour’s six months. In the new mandatory regime, these sentences would be extended. In 2008/09, 130 people were sentenced to terms up to three months, with a further 251 being sentenced to spend three months to six months in chokey. This latter figure presents something of a difficulty to those of us interested in how Labour's policy might change the status quo, since it includes characters whose sentences would be extended by Labour's mandatory prison policy and those whose sentences already amount to six months. It is impossible to say how many of the 251 are already serving six months terms. If we combine these figures - call it a high estimate of the effect of mandatory prison sentencing for knife-possession - we arrive at the figure of 381 prisoners who would be spending more time in jail under Labour's proposals, ratcheting up the daily cost. It is worth noting again these figures relate only to those convicted and sentenced of “having in a public place an article with a blade or point”, leaving out the second category of those convicted of “possession of an offensive weapon”. For reasons explained under point (1), their numbers and the effect of Labour's policy is impossible to estimate.

So how many more prisoners? And what would it cost?

To my eye the figure quoted by Bernard Ponsonby - 1,345 new prisoners under the proposed Labour regime - looks decidedly conservative. Taking the 2008/09 figures and assuming, in a workmanlike way, that Labour's hopes about a deterrent effect will take some time to materialise, if it materialises at all, we would be looking in the region of 1,559 prisoners, either new to prison or serving longer sentences for knife-possession under this policy. This is significantly higher than Gray's wobbly hopes that the numbers would amount to "several hundred". Ponsonby's costing - accepted by Gray, as you'll recall - was £21,000,000. How was that worked out? In 2008-09, the Scottish Prison Service estimated that the cost of each prison place was £31,106. The figure mentioned by Ponsonby is borrowed from the Liberal Democrats, who took this annual figure and simply divided it by months of the year. So, for Labour’s six month plan for mandatory imprisonment for knife carrying, the individual cost per prisoner is £15,553. If we jail the 1,345 people for six months apiece – this takes us to £20,918,785, which is rounded up to the neater £21 million. 

Recall at this point that it is Gray's position that (a) the total number of new prisoners under this policy will be less than 1,345 and (b) that it will cost £21 million of so to implement. How is this combination remotely plausible? The figure of £21 million is precisely premised on the assumption that prisoner numbers would increase by 1,345. Think about it. How can one accept the costing figure, but deny the critical assumption which generated that figure? Gray's position is totally inconsistent -  unless, that is, he is arguing that implementing his policy will cost significantly more per new prisoner than the Liberal Democrat calculations implied. Namely, that it will cost £21 million to lock up fewer than 1,345 people. If so, I'd be delighted to hear why he thinks the Liberals and Ponsonby so radically underestimate the cost of Labour's penal policy. Alternatively, the cynical amongst you might think that his argument that prison numbers would increase by a smidgeon - a mere "several hundred" or so -  was something of an evasion, a bit of a fib. For the reasons I've noted above, there are reasons to wonder if the 1,345 figure, rejected by Gray, is actually already an overly conservative assessment of the impact of mandatory jail terms. In the third alternative,  could it possibly be the case that the Labour Party haven't the foggiest how much this wheeze will drain from the public finances, haven't examined these publicly available figures in detail - or to reprise a comment one Labour supporter made to me recently, is it the case that:

"... with the exception of Baker they [the Shadow Cabinet] all know the "carry a knife blah bla blah stuff is all hot air. I think they feel given the sheer number of empty pledges in the Nats' manifesto last time round, they're allowed this one..."?

In my experience, if you are trying to captain a hot air balloon into the clouds, it rather helps if you don't riddle it will holes while you're still on the ground...


  1. I try, oh I try, not to be cursorily negative to politicians of parties whose policies and "principles" arouse me to indignation. After all, this is their manifestation, their political embodiment and soul.

    I think on this occasion I will permit myself an exception.

    Iain Gray is an imbecile and the team behind him are self serving buffoons.

    I feel embarrassed to consider that he is a Scot, sorry.

    I fell better for that.


  2. Well written narrative on the Snark and his idiotic policy sir!

    With a tongue so smoothly hung you should be a lawyer! :-).


  3. Mandatory sentencing is a daft idea, it won't work and will only mean innocent people will find themselves in bother.

    I carry a penknife while out hiking, sometimes when we're out we pass through public places, I don't trust the police to the extent where if they saw a person going about their reasonable lawful business they wouldn't jump all over an attractive collar that could be filed under "knife crime!"

    Labour are scaremongering anyway, ok, it goes on but the streets aren't awash with gangs of knife wielding thugs.

    Also, knee jerk emotion-driven law making is never, ever good. Totally agree on your point about that too, you just can't make laws on the back of emotional teeth gnashing.

  4. Well summed up, LPW.

    I would just add that more and more of the electorate that I speak to seem to be of the opinion that Gray just makes it up as he goes along.

  5. And so it continues, with a further layer of bemusing contradiction and inconsistency on this issue from Andy Kerr on Newsnicht.

    For my part, Lord Snooty, I'm thoroughly comfortable with the idea of Scottish numpties! The sovereignty of human mendacity and stupidity heeds no country and borders are no proof against its predations! As a soul opposed to the policy, I'm interested in its problems, but I'd be principally vexed if I was a great supporter of the scheme, to see it realised so shoddily.


    You'd best be careful. The Court of Session haven't yet authoritatively determined whether accusing people of being lawyers is defamatory of not! ;-)


    I agree. Sadly, Labour's proposal is premised on the idea that this is a simple issue - simply solved by banging up the culprits. Easy solutions may have their psychological compensations, but I'm thoroughly concerned about the prospect of this becoming Scottish policy. On Andy Kerr's numbers, we're talking about a notional 25% expansion in the Scottish prison population, if this proposal is introduced. That's a striking increase.


    There does seem to be a surprising lack of command of the detail on this from Labour figures, given their inconsistent answers. Surely they ought to have worked out decent (if politically wrongheaded) answers to these elementary questions about their policies. Seems not.