Friday, 20 November 2015

Gove Calls for the Police

To many people’s surprise, expectations of prison reform over the next five years are currently sky high. It’s not just Justice Secretary Michael Gove who has promised fundamental change.  The Prime Minister told the Tory conference that “when prisoners are in jail, we have their full attention for months at a time – so let’s treat their problems, educate them, put them to work”. How will we know whether these noble aspirations are translated into reality for the 85,000 prisoners locked up across the country?

We will know next week whether the Justice ministry has secured sufficient funds from the Treasury to make Gove’s promises look plausible but will probably have to wait a few more weeks for the comprehensive prison reform plan that officials are putting together. In the longer term we will need to rely on the reports of the independent Chief Inspector of Prisons to know whether conditions of detention improve and opportunities for rehabilitation increase in the way the government hope.

Today we learned who is likely to be making those judgements - former Met Police Counter Terrorism Commander Peter Clarke. Clarke has been nominated as a preferred candidate as Chief Inspector by Gove and although he will appear for a scrutiny hearing before the Justice Select committee – as will Glenys Stacey who has been put forward as Chief Inspector of Probation- chances are that the former Scotland Yard boss will be appointed in due course to replace Nick Hardwick.  Last year Gove appointed Clarke to lead an investigation of Islamist infiltration of the governance of schools in Birmingham. Although the report arguably helped end Gove’s term at education, he and Clarke seem to share views about the widespread nature of extremism in Muslim communities.

Whatever one thinks of Clarke, it is disappointing that the opportunity has not been taken to make the post of Chief Inspector of Prisons more independent of government. Last year Hardwick told the House of Commons Public Administration Committee that being appointed by and reporting to the Ministry of Justice is “by its nature incompatible with full independence” and proposed direct accountability to Parliament. The Committee recommended as much in their report but just before the election, change was rejected, with the MoJ arguing that allowing the inspectorate separate offices and a website plus more freedom to recruit its staff were sufficient to “reflect the unique watchdog status of HMI Prisons”.

At the same time, as if to amplify  concerns about independence, the Justice Committee were involved in a spat with Chris Grayling over the selection of Hardwick’s successor. The fact that the two "independent" members of the selection panel were revealed to be tory activists, led the Commissioner of Public Appointments to promise to amend the rules about panel membership. In the event no appointment was made but now that it has been, the Justice Committee will no doubt want to know who made it.

What else might they ask when Clarke comes before them for a pre appointment hearing? Most of their questions will no doubt focus on the skills, experience and values he will bring to a post which many consider as one of the foremost human rights monitors in the country. But there are three specific matters they would do well to raise.

First they will need to establish whether Mr Clarke has any family relationships that might cause a conflict of interest, such as that which ended Paul McDowell’s time as Probation inspector (and about which the Committee regrettably failed to inquire at the material time).

Second they might want to ask how being an ex-police officer could affect his judgement. After all inspection of police custody suites is an important role of the prison inspectorate these days. Former prison service staff are ineligible to be Chief Inspector of Prisons, but ex police officers seemingly not. His investigation skills will not be in question but will his impartiality?

Finally, they may want to ask a bit not only about how his experience in counter terrorism might affect his attitudes to the treatment of Muslim prisoners but about his other police roles too. For example he was deputy then acting head of personnel at the Met in the early 2000’s.  Today the Met admitted that that there had been no proper management of the deployments of undercover officers , even after the introduction of supposedly stringent legal controls. Was that debacle any part of Clarke’s responsibilities? Lets hope not otherwise he will be busy contributing to Lord Justice Pitchford's inquiry.

Thursday, 5 November 2015

Dear George

Spending Review 2015 and Prisons

As you will know from the  Party Conference, David has made prison reform one of the key domestic priorities for our government. In my own speech in Manchester and several others (most recently last night at the Howard League) I have emphasised how rehabilitation is the most important aspect of imprisonment. Better education, together with improved mental health and substance misuse treatment in prison are essential to achieving our policy aim.

Unfortunately I have discovered that the prison system is in a parlous state, often struggling to provide safety and decency let alone equipping prisoners with the attitudes and skills they need to put offending behind them. In the circumstances there are simply no options for making further economies in the running costs of prisons. As I told the Howard League that journalists should have unfettered access to prisons, our scope for varnishing the ugly truth will be increasingly limited too.

As you know , I plan to replace some of our Victorian city centre prisons with larger, modern and more economic establishments  although your officials will no doubt tell you that that this has been proposed by pretty well all of my predecessors since the last century and will take a good deal of time and careful planning to achieve. I will also be making much better use of new technology although again you may feel that you have "heard all this before".

As you have been encouraging departments to consider radical structural reforms, I do however have two more proposals which will help us to reduce cost in the system while improving its quality.

The first is to look at transferring responsibility for elements of the criminal justice budget to a more local level with incentives for Police and Crime Commissioners and local government to do more. Boris has been doing some interesting crime prevention work in partnership with local authorities in London and I am sure you would see the sense of our new Metro Mayors playing a greater role. If they can reduce demand on the courts and on the prison and probation services, over time we can cut spend responsibly and sustainably- not by making the system “cheaper not smaller” as my immediate predecessor sought to do, but "smaller and better". There’s a rather good report by Transform Justice about so called Justice Reinvestment  here and I understand a follow up will be published shortly.

The second idea is to cut substantially the lengths of prison sentences served by all but the gravest offenders. We keep people in prison much longer than our European neighbours - as Herr Schauble might have told you- at significant financial, social and ethical cost.  

If we are to keep our supporters and the media on side, we will need some cover for this. What I am thinking of is making the serving of a sentence very much more demanding than it is currently so that offenders have to serve less of it.

I am not advocating the kind of short sharp shock military regimes that Willie Whitelaw and Michael Howard experimented with in the past. Rather it will be the education, employment and therapeutic interventions which will be intensive.  Expecting prisoners to work a full day and to participate in education and rehabilitation activities in the evenings and at weekends would make a prison sentence count for much more, not only for prisoners but in the eyes of courts and the public.  I will ask the Sentencing Council to recalibrate the going rate for all of the main of the offences in the light of the more exacting nature of the penalty of imprisonment.

As you will appreciate, establishing the necessary regimes will require a short term increase in funds so that adequate numbers of staff can be deployed. This will not be welcome news to you but the rise will be easily offset over time by not only averting the need for new prisons – the population is forecast to rise to 90,000 by the end of the parliament – but by actually reducing the number of prisoners.  50,000 is what the Justice Committee recommended a few years ago and that’s what I’d like to aim for.  By simultaneously cutting the length of stay but  enhancing the rehabilitative impact of that stay it should be possible. I believe its known as a double whammy.

Yours Ever,