We've just run out of prison places. Again.
Ah, you think, that's easy for me to say. But in reality, it's fiendishly difficult to forecast just how many places you're going to need. And those lead times.... everybody knows it takes.... oooh, well... certainly... quite a while to build new "facilities". How were the Home Office supposed to know how many places to build?
Except that... actually, why didn't they just consult their own friggin' forecasts?
Right now, the Prison Service says the "usable operational capacity" of our prisons is an incredibly precise 79,799 places. And there are just 700 vacancies.
But way back in 1998 the Home Office forecast a need for 82,800 places by last year (central projection). And in 2002 they forecast a range of possible requirements for this year, ranging from 86,700 to 100,700. Yes that's right, somewhere between 7,000 and 21,000 more places than they've actually built. Here's a picture:
Ah, but, you say, if they'd built all those extra places they'd be empty now. Wrong. They'd actually be filled with the bad guys who've had to be left on the streets or released early because there's no space for them inside. With no free capacity, the cart is very definitely driving the horse.
So what's going on? A strong possibility is sheer blithering incompetence, and it's certainly alarming that the HO projections wang around all over the place virtually from one month to the next. But that aside, the likeliest explanation is budget pressure coupled with extreme wishful thinking. Tony and Gordo wanted every last penny for the NHS, and readily convinced themselves they could somehow solve crime by some unspecified means other than banging up villains.
The really scary thing is that there's no sign whatsoever that they've learned the lesson. The Home Office budget has been frozen, and although Reid has announced 8,000 more prison places, it's not clear to anyone where the money's coming from. Meanwhile, the latest projections call for up to another 11,501 places by the end of this decade.
Of course, they could get it done in 22 months. But like we've said before, it might be safer just to arm yourself.