It is not often that Inside Time, the newspaper run by and for prisoners, gets a scoop but it has cleverly managed to publicise information that the Ministry of Justice would probably rather have kept quiet about. The crafty cons at Inside Time somehow managed to obtain details of the Ministry’s 2012 expenditure figures. They make for fascinating reading.
Anyone worried that the impending legal aid cuts might mean that the MoJ’s core activities were at risk of being starved of funds need worry no longer. The Ministry dogs continue to be well fed, and no reduction in the quality of their diet is planned. Despite the austere financial climate the Department was able in 2012 to find £226,510 to spend at Crown Pet Foods, manufacturers of the top of the range James Wellbeloved brand, for the supply of dog food.
James Wellbeloved is a brand described by Crown Pet foods as “naturally healthy and hypo-allergenic” and free of all “artificial colours, flavours or preservatives”. The picky pooches dined in 2011 on a choice of turkey, duck or lamb and even “ocean white fish of the finest quality.” Not only is this said to be easy on the canine digestive system but it also “soothes itchy coats.” The beneficiaries of such gastronomic largesse are not one assumes, or at least hopes, pampered poodles snuggling into the folds of Ministerial laps: they are the 588 fierce guard dogs patrolling the perimeters of prisons. Should the slightly faddy sounding James Wellbeloved not provide sufficient energy, or should the dogs tire of turkey, lamb, duck and white fish there is an appropriate alternative: “Royal Canin” specifically produced for either Rottweillers or Geman Shepherds.
It is hard to know whether the readers of Inside Times will be happy about this. Many of them are of course inside for punishment, but would it not be right to offer at least remand prisoners a hypo-allergenic diet? “Ocean white fish of the finest quality” is a rare treat in the typical custodial canteen. On the other hand jealousy at the dogs’ gourmet diet may be tempered by the consideration that the only thing less congenial than an ordinary guard dog is a guard dog with an itchy coat, especially if it is hungry.
Even better news for dog lovers is that unlike money for criminal legal aid the Ministry envisages no reduction at all in expenditure on dog food for at least the next four years. Close perusal of the government online contract finder reveals that £906,040 has been set aside for dog food supplies. This works out at an annual figure of £226,510, exactly the same as was paid in 2012. The contract even includes specific provision for “a small number of treats”.
Criminal solicitors, on the other hand, even if they are able to remain in business, will be paid at least 17.5% less under the government’s current proposals. The proposals contain no provision for any treats at all.
Those of us not forced to live cheek by slavering jowl with government issue Rottweillers may be slightly more concerned to see some of the other things the Ministry has been spending our money on. For example, the £125M to Applied Language Solutions, a company who produced, as the Public Accounts Committee found, “chaos” in the criminal courts when the MOJ gave them a huge interpreting contract they had no ability to fulfil. The company was immediately taken over by Capita, an outfit considerably larger but almost as incompetent as ALS, which may possibly explain some of the otherwise mysterious £32M paid to Capita for the “provision of temporary interim managers and specialist contractors.”
There will always be legitimate disagreements about some of the MoJ budget. Sporty prisoners at Winchester Prison will have enjoyed using the £28,000 worth of “kickboards” (whatever they may be) supplied to a recreational area, but others might have preferred the money spent on dog food.
The idea that prisons should be mobile free zones is a good one, but it seems to have a long way to go before it becomes reality. The vast sum of £10,000,000 was spent on “mobile phone denial work.” No explanation is given of what this might involve except, bafflingly, that it is “not for use by establishments.”
This illustrates the practically invariable rule that the more expensive an item is, the more opaque its description becomes. The mechanism at work is Darwinian. The civil servants that rise to the top, and become Commanders of the Bath and so on, are those who talk a language that outsiders cannot understand. If no-one can follow what you are talking about then no-one can criticise it either. Cheap items can be clearly described because no-one will care very much; so buying dog food costing £200,000 can be plainly described as “supply of dog food.” If it had cost £2,000,000 the successful civil servant would instinctively have called it “provision of tailored canine consumable DF supplies.”
Most of us might still understand that that had something to do with dogs, but once something costs tens of millions they begin to speak a language that is entirely incomprehensible. Nobody will be any the wiser after reading that £22,500,000 has been spent on “systems integration and service management services provider … responsible for the integration between MoJ strategic infrastructure and the MoJ SSP hosting service to allow end users to access the shared service via a single user interface, the int”. Is that a lot or a little? What on earth is an SSP hosting service and who are these end users? And is that strange word “int” a mistake, an abbreviation or some sort of acronym?
The most expensive single item, comparable in fact to the entire legal aid budget, is the £1,054,200,000 – well over one billion pounds – for something blandly described as “DISC infrastructure services,” which to the uninitiated could be absolutely anything, although one can deduce it is probably something to do with computers because the lucky contractors are “Atos IT services.” At a guess it is yet another of those grandiose IT schemes, beloved by government, which generally speaking don’t work.
There is in fact good news to be had on legal aid, although for some reason the Ministry is reluctant to trumpet it from the rooftops. The Legal Services Commission has quietly issued figures showing that, even without taking inflation into account, criminal legal aid expenditure has been steadily falling for at least the last 3 years. What is more, cuts in legal aid that have already been implemented mean that this fall would almost certainly have continued even without the Ministry’s plans to close down law firms and prevent suspects choosing their own solicitors.
Thanks to the industry of Inside Time and others, government propaganda and obfuscation cannot conceal the fact that expenditure on criminal legal aid is not out of control, it is actually falling and has been for some time.
When that is taken into account the criminal legal aid lawyers’ case is really very moderate. All they are asking for is to be treated for the next four years with the same consideration as the 588 prison dogs.