Not A Number

by Quinn

I was quite busy over the weekend, but other than the apparent rugby scrum of government ministers straining to condemn the hanging of Saddam Hussein (and which I feel far too world weary about to comment upon) one news story in particular caught my attention.

It was the discovery that the Prison Service doesn’t know how many inmates have absconded from open prisons. This has prompted condemnation from the media and opposition parties who say it provides further evidence that the Home Office – and Prison Service in particular – is a shambles.

Now, that well may be true, for all sorts of reasons, but my reading of this story is somewhat different. In fact all we have discovered is that the Prison Service doesn’t keep a centrally-based up-to-the-minute record of the number of absconders, and so were unable to provide precise figures to the BBC when they enquired earlier in the week. The details of current absconders are held at the local level and passed onto the police, but not aggregated at a national level because that would serve no practical purpose. However, in response to the furore, resources will be set aside to provide a central database; not to improve the running of the service but in order to accurately field media enquiries.

So what’s the point? If the Prison Service doesn’t feel the need for the data presumably they won’t refer to it and so it will be a waste of everyone’s time. I must admit, I can’t imagine it will be that difficult to find out the total number of current absconders – surely you just contact each local department for their latest figures and do a bit of addition – but if it is that easy why don’t we let the media do it for themselves, if they are really that bothered.

The main upshot of the whole affair is likely to be the creation of another time-consuming project to provide another pointless statistic leading to another distorting centralised government target that will distract the service from the actual job in hand.