It's rather important to recognise the difference
The BBC and the Grun aside, everyone agrees that spending must be cut. Now the question is what spending?
And therein lies a considerable risk. The risk is that because we're all in this together, the cuts will be shared out across spending departments pro rata, pretty well irrespective of merit and irrespective of the consequences.
Today's announcement by Ken Clarke that prison no longer works - and by implication prison spending can be cut - is a dismal case in point.
As regular readers will know, we have long been fans of locking up more criminals. As we pointed out in our very first blog on the Cost of Crime, the Home Office has estimated that 100,000 persistent criminals are responsible for half of all our crime. But of that 100,000, only 80,000 are inside at any one time - the rest are out and about creating mayhem. With 80,000 more prison places (ie doubling the existing number of places), we could keep them all inside permanently and halve our crime rate. And the £3-4bn pa costs of the places would be far less than the £80bn odd estimated cost of crime.
According to Ken, prison doesn't work because it can't cure criminals either of their drug habits or their tendency to commit further crime after release. And he certainly has a point. Nothing we've ever seen says anyone knows how to do that with any degree of confidence.
But the idea that community sentences would be a good alternative is pure wishful thinking. In reality, our £1bn pa Probation Services is staffed by Mr Barrowclough's soppy brothers - they're barely capable of tying their own shoelaces let alone supervising a bunch of villains picking up litter (eg this blog). And frankly, we don't believe anyone could do the job successfully.
Our plan is simple - three strikes and you're out (see this blog). If you've already been sentenced to jail twice, on the third offence you're out permanently. Why? Because the stats show that once someone has been sentenced for crime three times, he's more than 50% likely to reoffend:
So prison is most definitely not something we would cut. The first duty of the state - the thing we really do pay our taxes for - is to protect the honest law-abiding citizen. It is unacceptable that cuts should fall there, while aid for space-race India remains untouched.
Which is not to say we couldn't improve the cost efficiency of the prison service. We agree with Ken that £38 grand pa seems like a lot to pay for a year inside. And when you look at the costs of individual prisons you find a huge range. The most expensive cost three times as much per prisoner as the cheapest, and while differing security levels undoubtedly account for some of that, it does suggest some prisons are much more efficient than others.
Actually, I've just been listening to Ken on R4 Today, and the words "back" and "peddling" spring to mind. So we'll see.
As we all understand, these spending cuts are going to be very difficult. But we do expect the government to exercise proper judgement. Sharing the pain is all very well, but we taxpayers have some clear priorities, and we need to see them reflected in the budget allocations. We do not want to find the bath empty of both bathwater and baby.