What will Michael Gove‘s appointment as Justice Secretary mean for the penal system? As a Times columnist he declared himself a liberal on criminal justice yet favoured the return of the death penalty. Like his predecessor Chris Grayling, he is an ideological and divisive figure. Gove not only fell out spectacularly with the workforce while Education secretary but also with Theresa May, the minister with whom he will now have to work most closely. Restorative justice might well need to be urgently available in Whitehall.
Gove’s controversial record and the contentious nature of his new portfolio raise the question of whether such an appointment should simply be a matter of Prime Ministerial patronage. An American style confirmation hearing before the new Parliament might reassure the public that Gove is a suitable candidate to be Lord Chancellor.
The Tory manifesto commitments will provide Gove’s starting point but it remains to be seen how he moves forward to toughen sentencing, overcome the formidable technical obstacles to replacing the Human Rights act with a British Bill of Rights and introduce the “swift and certain punishment” promised for petty offenders and drug addicts. There are three areas where something more positive is possible.
First the Conservative victory means that local Police and Crime Commissioners are here to stay and their role looks set to be enhanced. They could become drivers of Justice Reinvestment initiatives in which criminal justice resources are shifted to the local level with incentives to reduce the unnecessary use of imprisonment. This would satisfy not only the Tory commitment to localism but the need to keep prison numbers under control in the coming years.
The second policy area concerns women offenders where the manifesto called for greater use of electronic monitoring as an alternative to custody. Gove should instruct the Sentencing Council to draw up separate guidelines for women which mean custody is used as a last resort and for the shortest possible time.
Finally, while these two measures could help to keep the lid on the prison population, something more is needed to address the parlous state of the prison system itself. At Education, Gove asked Sir Martin Narey to work first to increase the use of adoption and second to revamp social work education. As a former Director General of the Prison Service and NOMS chief Executive, Martin would be well placed to help Gove with his new challenges. He could start by making an honest assessment of the adequacy of the prison budget and whether current funding can provide safe decent and purposeful prisons. Narey could also be asked to look at the adequacy of staff numbers in the reformed probation services. Further cuts to budgets in either prison or probation are surely unthinkable without assessments of this kind.