"The NHS will last as long as there are folk left with the faith to fight for it"
Aneurin Bevan

Sunday, 7 June 2015

Prisoner debt

If I were ever to become a Special Advisor to the Conservative Party not only would I lose all credibility and respect of all of my friends and family, but I would also lose any credibility and respect I have for myself. So take this as a declaration that the following is not what I think should happen, but, considering that we have one of the most right wing governments ever elected to this country, this is what may happen.

Comfort Allowance

In March 1943 my grandfather, grandmother and father (then 10) were interned in the Civilian Internment camp at Lunghua in Shanghai. (Yes, the same camp as JG Ballard, and no, Empire of the Sun is not autobiographical; the camp was not like that and Ballard has even written saying that the book was a novel and the event did not happen.)

In August 1945 the camp was liberated and in September 1945 my grandmother and father (who was seriously ill) were repatriated (first via plane to Hong Kong, and then a three month journey via a military hospital ship back to Liverpool). My grandfather stayed on in Shanghai and returned to the job he had before the war. I have the letters that my grandfather wrote back to England (he returned back to the UK in July 1946, it was not his intention to return, but that is another story...).

The letters are mostly about his failing health, and about money: he expresses great regret that he could not provide more money for my grandmother. Bear in mind that my father needed many operations and this was before the NHS, so my grandmother would have to pay the medical bills.

In one of the letters is a passage that says:
"Our firm promised to pay for comfort allowance but whether they will pay for our wives + families remains to be seen."
This needs a bit of explanation.

The camp provided little food to the internees. Part of the reason was that there was little food in Shanghai during the war. The camp had a small farm with chickens, and my grandfather had to pay for eggs and milk (I have records of how much he paid, and even in the camp there was rampant inflation). My father was a young boy so it was important that he had milk and eggs. (By "eggs" I mean not only the gooey stuff inside that could be boiled, poached or fried, but also the shell. Egg shell was ground up and children had to eat this as a source of calcium.)

In addition, the internees could receive Red Cross Parcels. These were not charity, the name comes from the fact that the Red Cross delivered the parcels and ensured that they were checked and did not contain forbidden items. Before they were interned, people gave some money to a trusted friend who would not be interned, and this friend would purchase allowed items and package up for the Red Cross to deliver. My grandfather worked with a Rumanian Jew, Bernard, who had escaped Nazi East Europe. In some of his letters Bernard gave his nationality as "Rumanian" in others he described himself as "stateless", but since he was not from an Allied country, he was not interned by the Japanese. My grandfather gave Bernard money to provide Red Cross parcels, but since no one knew how long internment would last, and the money soon ran out.

Internees could borrow "comfort allowance". Since this money would be used to pay for essentials, the word "comfort" was certainly a euphemism. The money came through the Swiss Consulate who handled British affairs in occupied Shanghai. The British government reimbursed the Swiss government for this money. At the end of the war, the civilian internees were expected to reimburse the UK government for this debt.

That's right, people were interned for two and a half years in appalling conditions, with inadequate food, and the UK government treated it as if they were staying in a holiday camp, running up a bill that had to be paid.

The comment in my grandfather's letter referred to an offer from the company he worked for to pay for the cost of his internment "comfort allowance", although he was unsure as to whether they would also pay for my grandmother and father. I have no other references to these payments, so as far as I know my grandfather paid for the food my grandmother and father had while interned. Since my father was seriously ill during the last 6 months of internment, there were also his hospital bills and medical for that time. (On two occasions my father was allowed out of the camp to go to a hospital in Shanghai for x-rays.)

Ludicrous and Unbelievable Election Pledges

The Cameron government were elected with an unexpected majority. It surprised Conservatives as much as it surprised everyone else. They did not expect to get a majority, and so, in the last few weeks of the election campaign, to give them some chance of forming a minority government, or be the biggest party in a coalition, the Tories went on a rampage of throwing money around in a series of election pledges they did not intend to honour. The problem is that they did get a majority and they do have to deliver the election pledges.

Such pledges include: cuts in inheritance tax, rise in the tax threshold, an extra £8bn for the NHS and (the expensive pledge of) seven day working, right to buy of Housing Association houses underwritten by the public purse and increases in the state pension. Big expensive pledges. All of these come at the same time as a ludicrous law that says that income tax, VAT and National Insurance will not be raised during the Parliament, and an unbelievable pledge that the government will generate a surplus in 2018-19. These expensive pledges have to be paid for and the government have said they will do this with cuts including £12bn to welfare.

Cutting their way to a surplus will be very difficult, so I reckon the government will find ways of raising revenue, and this means they will look towards user charges.

"Prisoner Debt"

The Ministry of Justice estimates that the cost per prisoner is £34k per year (2013-14 pdf). Compare this to higher education students who leave university with (on average) a £44k debt. Assuming that the student debt was generated over a 3 year period, this means an average debt of £14,600 per year per student. Basically - using these contrived figures - prisoners are twice as expensive as students.

The cost of higher education has been "solved", or at least the Conservative government thinks so since they do not intend any significant reforms in the student loan system, except, perhaps, the sale of the Student Loan Company as a asset to pay for their reckless election pledges.

The government has squeezed the provision of prisons, with many prisons privatised, and services like probation moved to privately provided "payment by results". However, these reforms have been more ideological than a sure way to make sustainable savings. It could be argued that there is little scope to make prison provision cheaper, so the only way to reduce the government's contribution will be to find another source of income.

This is why I said above that I think the government will look to user charges. Prisoners cost the state £34k a year, the government could regard this as an "obligation" of the prisoner, just as they regard the cost of higher education tuition to be an "obligation" of the student. Every year the prisoner remains in prison, their "debt" will go up. If the prisoner shows good behaviour and receives a cut in their sentence, their "prisoner debt" will be curtailed. Right wingers like financial incentives and this will fit into their ideology: the prospect of curtailing their "prisoner debt" will make prisoners reform! Of course, giving a prisoner a bill when they are released could be counter productive since most prisoners will not want to be released, so steps will have to be taken to avoid this.

There is a model in student loans that can be used. When students leave higher education they are not presented with a bill and told to pay it immediately. Students do pay off their loans, but not in a lump sum. They pay off their loans gradually via automatic deductions from their pay packet. The infrastructure is there. It works, so why not use it as a mechanism for ex-cons to pay off their "prisoner debt"?

Government Charging Prisoners

Of course, there will be objections to charging prisoners for their spell in prison, but as I have already shown above, the British government already have a precedent for doing this: they charged people who had committed no crime and were imprisoned by a foreign government! If they can charge citizens they know to be innocent, what moral objection will they have to charging people who have been convicted of committing a crime?

You may balk at the idea of charging prisoners for their board and lodging while incarcerated, but bear in mind that many people are already being charged for services that the state should provide and it is likely that other user charges will appear in the next few years ("hotel charges" for staying in an NHS hospital is a likely charge). We have a right wing government, committed to reducing the state, so don't be surprised of the extremity of the schemes they will create to pay for the reckless pledges they made to get elected.