david clendon in the house

A Billion Better Things

Earlier this week I posed some questions to Finance Minister Bill English about his support for the government’s plan to spend a billion dollars on a new prison. I was pretty disappointed in his answers, all of which flew in the face of his own comments in the past acknowledging that prisons were a moral and fiscal failure.

Bill also said a couple of weeks ago that “having surpluses does not mean that the Government can go spending more money on ineffective public services or infrastructure that may not be needed.”  I can think of few better examples of ineffective public services and unnecessary infrastructure than a 1500-bed, billion-dollar prison package.

Replying to my primary question, Bill talked about the need to be “a great deal more thoughtful and focusing on results” when spending public money. So far, so good.

After that, though, he went sadly awry, insisting that people continue to commit serious violent, sexual and drug offences and so we need more places to lock them up. We have ‘no choice’, according to Bill, but to build capacity in the prison system, even while we’re (apparently) seeking to understand the drivers of crime and utilise ‘social investment tools’ in order to reduce offending.

Doubtless, there are some dangerous people in our prisons. There are thousands more, though, who could and should be dealt with in some other way. We already have a very clear understanding of what generates crime – and, of course, spending time in prison is one of those. I’m not sure what else Bill’s waiting for.

Perhaps he’s been getting dodgy advice from the Minister for Corrections about the real nature of alternative solutions?  Bill should look up his former colleague Simon Power instead: nearly six years ago, Power was (by and large) a driving force behind the Government’s work on the drivers of crime, including ‘help for vulnerable young parents, early intervention programmes and tackling alcohol harm’. “Research suggests,” Power once said, “that if successful early intervention occurs with the 5 to 10 per cent of children with the most severe behavioural problems, there is the potential for a 50 to 70 per cent overall reduction in adult criminal activity and associated poor life outcomes.”

Bill clearly has very little faith in his own ‘social investment tools’ if he thinks they won’t have any effect in the next five years. After all, that’s the minimum amount of time it would take to design, build and commission yet another ‘moral and fiscal failure’. One more another monument to misguided public policy and penal populism. I can’t wait.