One of my frustrations is the disconnect between our lawmakers and the world into which their laws are intended to work. We are all entitled to have opinions that are out of touch with reality, to think out loud and perhaps then regret our outburst, however debates in the House of Commons should not be the place for this to happen. MPs spouting foolish ideas in such a place may be some way from a law being made, but as law making is largely hidden from public view until the laws are presented to Parliament, we have good reason to be nervous when a well connected MP speaks out in a foolish manner.
Guy Opperman is the MP for Hexham and has an impressive background. He has worked extensively with charities in his time as a Lawyer and Barrister and could certainly not be described as having worked all of his life in Politics. However Mr Opperman is the Parliamentary Private Secretary for Mark Harper, the Immigration Minister which gives him access to a great deal of understanding and influence for what is being discussed within the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice.
On Wednesday Mark Pritchard MP organised a debate on prison education and welfare services. Third Sector Magazine reported on it in this article, I have quoted from the article below. Guy Opperman was one of those who spoke in the debate when he told MPs that the “next step for public sector reform of the prison system” should involve charities taking over prisons. Opperman asked Pritchard if he agreed that “we should be looking into the idea of an academy prison, whereby the whole prison is run by a charity or altruistic institution?” Opperman said: “The current model is either state or private, whereas in schools we have transformed education by the provision of academies that are outwith the state or private institutions. “Surely, the next step for public sector reform of prisons should be the charity not just providing the education within a small segment of a prison, but taking over the whole prison itself.” Opperman later asked Jeremy Wright, the parliamentary under-secretary of state for justice: “Does the minister accept the potential for alternative providers for an individual prison?” Wright did not rule out the possibility. “It is not so much who provides the prison accommodation that matters, but what they provide and the support that goes with it,” Wright said. “It is important that we look at every potential provider of prisons to ensure that they can provide for us not just a secure environment, but one in which rehabilitation can be achieved.”
My own knowledge of prisons is based on my involvement with a number of charities that support those who are in prison or leaving prison. The purpose of these schemes is primarily to increase the prospect of men and women who have been ‘sent down’ to have the personal resources to break the cycle of re-offending which sadly impacts many people who during their lives are held in Prison. I have yet to meet anyone involved in these charities or other charities associated with them, that believe that the line between support for inmates and the organisation of the prison itself should ever be crossed. Indeed most of the charities works very hard to help the prisoners or ex-prisoners to understand that the partnership between prison and charity only extends to the parts of the prison system that deals with the care of those held within it such as the Chaplaincy and other social provision. This idea from Guy Operman is one that will have raised substantial concerns with other people involved in these charities.
The state is responsible for providing our security through a Police Force, for running the Courts System and for locking up people who have been convicted and sentenced to a custodial sentence. The extent to which private sector agencies are paid to run parts of the system under state control is contentious but in the right setting perfectly understandable. However as we saw from the G4S & SERCO involvement in tagging or the G4S provision in the security of the Olympics, sometimes the greedy search for profits even if a few rules need to be bent, or the need to avoid running at a loss means that the private sector is unable to meet the demands that the State then must pick up. Charities exist purely to fulfil their charitable objectives which must be based on a defined list which can be found on the Charity Commission website. Whilst they can operate services that are not purely charitable this must be a small part of their overall activities and in a manner that can be shown to support their long term objectives. Providing education or preventing homelessness are both objectives that can be achieved through working with people in prison. However detaining people against their wishes is not something that easily fits into any of the charitable objectives. The origins of the word Charity, come from the same source as the word Love. That is why older versions of the Bible use the term charity in place of the word Love in some places. One of the easiest tests of charitable endeavour is to see if the activity is consistent with the word Love. All of the objectives on the Commission website pass that test. The running of prisons fails that test. Simples!