In one year in England and Wales, 200 sex offenders were released from prison without having anywhere to live. About half of these sex offenders were deemed to pose a ‘high’ or ‘very high’ risk to the public.
Though worrying to hear, this news probably shouldn’t come as a surprise. Last year, prison and probation service inspectors warned that not enough was being done to ensure the safety of the general public with regards to released sex offenders. A joint review found that after release from prison, fewer than half of the sex offenders ordered to go on courses to reduce the risk of re-offending actually attended them. Four in ten of all sex offenders released from prison were found to be doing no work whatsoever to reduce the risk of reoffending. Couple this with the housing crisis plaguing the UK and the reigning Conservative ideology which actively seeks to dismantle the foundations of social housing, and you have a perfect maelstrom of issues which prevent proper monitoring and safeguarding when it comes to sex offenders.
The issues with how sex offenders are monitored after their release don’t simply exist in a bubble; they are the consequence of years of experimental and inefficient government policy. In 2013, the then justice secretary Chris Grayling implemented significant reforms of the probation service, reforms which the National Audit Office condemned in 2019 as having been ‘set up to fail’.
The past seven years have seen cuts to public funding for our probation service, and increased outsourcing to private companies of the services themselves. A damning report released in 2017 found that the public was being put at significant risk because of under-resourcing in a part-privatised probation service.
But though probation services are seeing significant resourcing problems, the government is making little attempt to rectify this. Instead, in August 2019, the government promised 10,000 extra prison places. Though funding for prison services also saw significant cuts after austerity policies were implemented in 2010, these cuts are now being slowly reversed. This is no bad thing – the past 10 years have seen a fall in prison officer numbers, and terrifying rises in the number of assaults on prison staff. But what we are seeing with the new increase in prison funding is a significant increase in the number of prisoners – meaning little extra resource is actually being deployed to improve conditions and rehabilitation for existing prison populations.
This is problematic. It makes prisons less able to release reformed citizens back into society and, when cuts to the probation service are considered, this means that prisons are receiving repeat offenders who are trapped in a cycle of non-rehabilitation. A UKRI report found that 75% of UK inmates reoffend within nine years of being released from prison. So if it is easier for people to be sent to prison (because of increased prison places) rather than being enrolled on a community rehabilitation programme, you will find that prison services are stretched to the limit in terms of numbers – a consequence of an underfunded probation service and few opportunities for offenders to be rehabilitated.
The problems that our prison and probation services are seeing are not unique. They plague one of our greatest public institutions in the UK: the NHS. The current government has pledged funding increases for the NHS over the next four years, but these increases cannot cover the growing demands that the NHS is seeing from an ageing population and social issues.
The NHS is often considered the jewel in the crown of British public services; in some ways, whatever hand it is dealt is symbolic. But increasing spending on the NHS alone can never be enough. Its much-neglected companion services of social care and mental health provision are often ignored because they are not so prominent in the public consciousness. But until and unless these services are properly funded, the NHS will be unable to thrive.
For example, around 2,500 NHS hospital beds are occupied by patients who are fit to leave hospital, but who would not be able to access appropriate social care were they to be discharged. Hospital A&E units are under increasing pressure because of cuts to the local council funding which makes provisions for social care services. This means that more and more A&E units are burdened with cases that should be dealt with elsewhere in the system – and thus struggle to meet their target of four hour waiting times. Specialist mental health services are also very difficult to access, and this problem in turn affects our A&E units and hospitals up and down the country. Many of the people arriving at A&E are in desperate need – but that need often pertains to an entirely different service which they cannot access. A&E therefore becomes the only available option. Thus when we see A&E units missing targets and struggling with under-resourcing, we need to recognise that this is not simply a result of hospital underfunding, but of underfunding affecting other crucial public services.
It is not enough for our government to simply reverse years of real-terms funding cuts. But for the government to make a flamboyant display of reversing these cuts, and focus only on the most politically expedient public services, is a disingenuous cover which hides just how many of our essential services are breaking at the seams. The comments from Sir Simon Stevens, chief executive of NHS England, bemoaning the social care crisis on The Andrew Marr Show may have had some impact, irking the government and forcing it to take action. It has recently promised to address the social care crisis, and is reported to be weighing up an extra tax for the over-40s as a potential solution.
But it’s not just the probation service and social care sector which are being quietly starved of funds – it’s so many other vital elements of society, from early years services and women’s refuges to adult education options. We need to hold this government to account, because throwing money at the NHS is not enough – our healthcare system cannot manage on its own without a functioning welfare state. And increasing prison places does little to keep us safer if the cycle of reoffending is never broken. So next time somebody lauds this government for its public spending, remember the parts of the system that we don’t hear about so often. If we want our NHS to survive, if we want our streets to be safe, we have to remember that the bigger picture cannot be ignored.