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Bureaucratic Consequences: Chris Grayling's Book Ban and the Failings of Policy

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Chris Grayling doesn't know what's going on. Some might argue that this is true generally, but I'm talking about the "book ban". He didn't mean for it to happen, he didn't intend to deprive prisoners, and he doesn't have a good answer to the criticism that's being levelled at him. And the fuss is part of a wider and even more concerning issue.

The ban, a restriction on parcels that prisoners can receive, came in as part of changes to the "Incentives and Earned Privileges Scheme", under Prison Service Instruction PSI 30/2013. The aim was simple: to encourage prisoners to behave well and engage with rehabilitation through better pay and better living conditions. As a part of this parcels were banned to ensure that prisoners would have to earn money to make their own purchases. This cut access to everything from birthday presents, to new underwear, stationary and, centre of the recent furore, books.

Criticism has been rife and Grayling's response has been, at best, incoherent. He has argued that he did not ban books, that banning parcels is necessary for rehabilitation and for security, that prison libraries can pick up the slack. Most worryingly, he has claimed that "neither I nor any other minister have made any policy changes specifically about the availability of books in prisons". But despite this the availability of books has been severely curtailed. Authors from Phillip Pullman to Carol Ann Duffy have written open letters, signed petitions and staged protests. Twitter is inundated with "shelfies" - snaps people have taken of their bookcases in support of the right of prisoners to read. And Chris Grayling is being ripped apart in the media for being unsympathetic, "bonkers", "out of his depth", even "evil".

However, the truth is much more concerning: the book ban is part of something much wider and much worse than a draconian policy by the government's "least enlightened" minister. It shows us very clearly that there is a dangerous disconnect between Westminster, Whitehall and what is happening in communities across the United Kingdom. A disconnect which is leading to well intentioned policies not filtering down to producing safe or beneficial outcomes for the people they are designed to help. Ministers have argued for, brought in and implemented policies which have had consequences far beyond what they had intended.

As a minister Chris Grayling's remit is far too great to write every single rule in the book. PSI 30/2013 was authored by the bureaucratic National Offender Management Service, and Grayling had no hand in the detail. Ministers don't. They come up with attractive policies to sell to the electorate and their parties, and the fine print is left up to the civil service departments that serve them. In the run up to the 2015 General Election, politicians will be laying out their stalls and designing policies to show voters their vision for the UK. However, between the concept and the reality lie layers of bureaucracy, budgets, departmental negotiations and red tape. Feedback from the "sharp edge" of policy is obscured, and the intent is lost in the translation to reality.

Endemic to the creation of policy in our country is the failure of implementation. The "one size fits all" model of prescribing and implementing policy brings failure time and again. Take the Big Society, the flagship Coalition initiative designed to have us all helping our neighbours and remembering our sense of civic duty. It was badly introduced: those who sought help had their community initiatives financed, but people were not supported in developing community groups to fit local needs. The loans given by the Big Society Bank became the key focus, rather than the wider vision the Coalition had for a cohesive Britain. A good idea became watered down and poorly implemented, ending up far removed from the vision. It failed precisely because it was imposed from above.

What saddens me is that the solutions to this problem are so simple. One MP (Labour's Lisa Nandy) said this week that it's time to stop blaming ministers: it's satisfying, but not particularly helpful. Instead, we need to bring in local accountability structures, enabling the people on either side of the front line to feed back in to policy.

And so too with books, parcels and underwear for prisoners. Throw out PSI 30/2013. Cut out the bureaucracy. Let prison governors decide what should and shouldn't be brought in to their prisons, and then hold them to account for their decisions. Leave the implementation to those at the sharp end.

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