Wednesday, 3 February 2010

First Principles

Frances Crook, the Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, has written in her most recent blog about her and Kevin Curley’s meeting with the Charity Commission on the issue of charities being involved in the running of prisons.

Kevin has made his views on the issue very clear. He set up the “charities must not run prisons group” on facebook (which now has 157 members; including Andy Benson from NCIA) and tweeted on the issue frequently last August (@kevincurley).

I profoundly disagree with these objections which fundamentally boil down to the running of prisons not being the sort of thing which Frances and Kevin feel charities should do. Frances talks of it being “immoral” and cites situations where charities may have to be involved in making difficult decisions about punishment regimes.

Others have responded to these points well (including my colleague Peter Kyle on Crook’s blog last August). Charities have to make difficult decisions every day about the best ways to help their beneficiaries, sometimes compromising short term comfort for long term outcomes. We live in the real world and the best organisations understand how to operate within that real world to bring out the best long term results.

These divergent views are one illustration of a fundamental schism in the sector which is becoming increasingly apparent to me. On a number of issues, such as whether we should pay trustees, whether we should deliver more public services, and how we should present ourselves to the public, there is a polarity between those who approach from the point of view of what charities should look and feel like, including the experience of those who work and volunteer within those organisations, and those who approach from the point of view of what will generate the best outcomes for beneficiaries.

Now I understand that this is a crude distinction. These things are often related and that they are both important. However, I do think this is a helpful distinction because it forces us to refine our first principles when making judgements about how our sector should develop.

Taking a few of those salient issues, my approach to addressing them starts with the question "what’s the best thing for the beneficiaries?" I believe that charities should be able to pay trustees if they want to in order to get the best people on their board to make the best decisions to drive the best outcomes. I believe that charities should get involved in bidding for government contracts if it allows them to better meet the needs of those they were set up to serve. I believe that charities should be able to have a role in running prisons if they will be able to better rehabilitate offenders as a result.

The counter arguments sound to me like they prioritise norms about the sectors character. Charities should not be allowed to pay trustees because our heritage is voluntary and that we should be distinct from the private sector. Charities should be wary of becoming involved in public service delivery because it may jeopardise our independence. Charities should not be involved in running prisons because it might mean that they have to make difficult and unpalatable choices.

So what is more important: what the sector looks like or how well we deliver for those who need us? What are your first principles?


  1. You are so "on message" here it literally hurts. You're even spelling people's names wrong in your blog! (Frances not Francis)

  2. Seb, the way you frame this question is a little misleading - charities already have to make difficult and unpalatable choices within a prison environment as contracted service providers. Of course charities need to get down and dirty to really effect change and that can't always be easy or cuddly.

    But being involved in contracts with private providers to run prisons is far more than that. How about this question regarding first principles - if charities are about empowering their beneficiaries how does exercising the ultimate power over an individual (ie. removing your beneficiaries liberty, at least in a society where capital punishment is banned) square with this? Would you be in favour of charities delivering capital punishment? why be in favour of charities delivering other sorts of punishment? When a charity campaigns on the impropriety of using prison as a response to vulnerable individuals who commit crime, how can it square that with jailing those vulnerable individuals?

    I suspect the problem here is a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of prison, which is that prison can somehow be an institution of rehabilitation. This has crept into the debate over the decades but it certainly isn't how the law understands prison. The law understands prison as an institution of punishment, and when judges sentence people to prison it is to punish them.

    Neither charities or private companies should be punishing individuals. If the state decides the punishment then the state should take the responsibility of delivering the punishment. There's a first principle for you.

  3. Thanks Robin, have amended my shoddy spelling! Apologies Frances.

    Thanks for your comments Aralio. I think you're right to highlight the distinction between prisons as a place of rehabilitation and as a place of punishment. However I still believe that general questions about what a charity can and can't do comes second to questions about what interventions work.

    I am not in favour of a charity delivering capital punishment because I am not in favour of anyone delivering capital punishment, but sometime some people need to be locked up. If better procedures can be put in place to stop those people from offending again when they come out then I would like to see that happen. If charities being involved in running prisons doesn't make that difference then I don't think it's a good idea.