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,



  1. This would fit well with a letter I wrote to The Times yesterday. To keep it short, I have left out a lot of the arguments, and of course it may not be printed, but I think the idea is worth exploring.

    One of the most damning findings about prisons is the Chief Inspector’s report that purposeful activity outcomes are at the lowest level ever recorded. If people are sent to prison it should be for a reason, namely to persuade and enable people not to commit further crimes. Purposeless inactivity is not a good enough reason, but it is inevitable as long as the numbers sent far exceed the capacity of the prisons to use the time constructively. On present trends, the best the the National Offender Management Service hopes for is to employ around 20 per cent of prisoners by 2021. The worthwhile programmes you report (“Gove in new fight to banish the ‘blob’ from nation’s jails”, 10 December) are expensive to provide in prisons and only reach a fraction of the inmates. Rather than build more prisons, it would make sense to bring back day training centres, used in the 1970s and 80s, to provide education, therapy and other necessary life skills. Motivation for change could include victim awareness and restorative justice. The centres would cost much less than prisons, and would not cut offenders off from supportive families and friends. The requirement to attend would constitute a loss of liberty, but it would have a purpose.