Monday, 4 April 2016

Let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools of thought contend.

Today’s Guardian (4 April 2016) reports that the review of prison education undertaken by Dame Sally Coates will recommend  a scheme along the lines of the Teach First programme, “whereby graduates spend two years working as prison officers before going off to pursue other careers”.  They won’t, it seems, be teachers based with the Prisons’ Learning and Skills providers, but “educational helpers” working on the wings.

Back in February’s prison reform speech, Prime Minister David Cameron expressed his wish too that the best and brightest graduates should want to work in prison but to teach prisoners, “even if it’s just for a short period in their career”. He announced that he had asked the chief executive of Teach First, to advise on setting up a new social enterprise to be chaired by David Laws that will work to develop a similar scheme for prisons. Has this evolved into the programme that the Guardian reports on today or are there to be two initiatives for prison officers and for teachers? All will presumably be revealed when the Coates report is published later this month but the lack of clarity is symptomatic of a broader uncertainty about if, and how, many of the Government’s prison reform proposals will actually work in practice.

Maybe at this stage it doesn’t matter. Perhaps we should just be grateful for the much more constructive approach being taken to prison policy and in Nick Hardwick’s words “seize the day”. “It would be a terrible error” he said in his inaugural professorial lecture a few weeks ago “to stand aside, carping, for fear of disappointment.”  But we veterans of prison reform cannot escape asking the hard questions about the details of well-intentioned reform plans. The 1990’s saw many of Lord Woolf’s post Strangeways reforms quickly derailed and it did not take long in the 2000’s for the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) to turn into the Nightmare on Marsham Street.   One of the best informed commentators on penal affairs Alex Cavendish greeted the Guardian report on the Coates Review as a “mix of interesting ideas and pie in the sky fantasy”. Without proper precision, scrutiny and debate, energy and resources could well be wasted pursuing the latter at the expense of the former. Continuing reports of grave problems in all kinds  of prisons  show the urgency of getting reform right.

Uncertainty too surrounds Charlie Taylor’s review of Youth Justice whose interim findings were published in February, looking every bit a rush job to fit with the Prime Minister’s speech. They comprised barely 11 pages “outlining a vision for a different approach to detaining young people”. At the time, I expressed real doubts about whether Taylor’s Secure Schools will come to fruition any more than the Secure College which was abandoned last year.

One reason for the scepticism is the lack of proper process in the review itself. Taylor has not as far as I am aware invited submissions to his review or even responses to his February paper.  His original terms of reference,announced to parliament, made it clear that “the review will not consider the age of criminal responsibility, the way young people are dealt with in the criminal courts or the youth sentencing framework”.   The emerging findings were accompanied by a MOJ press release explaining that the remainder of the youth review would examine not the practicalities and costs of turning Taylor’s new vision of youth custody into reality but “the way young offenders are dealt with in court and the sentences available”- the very matters originally excluded from the review and which Taylor seems ill suited to consider. When Michael Gove appeared before the Justice Committee last month, the Chair asked if Taylor could further extend the scope of his review to include the young adult age group. “Absolutely, and I will ask him if he can do exactly that” Gove replied as if this were a minor tweak to the work rather than what would be – if it were done properly - the opening of a major new topic of inquiry.  

Coates's and Taylor's are not the only reviews underway in the MoJ looking at difficult and complex areas. Ian Acheson’s review of radicalisation has not been published presumably because of internal arguments about the desirability of concentrating convicted terrorist in one prison and fear perhaps that it may sit uneasily with David Lammy’s review of racial bias in criminal justice. A Problem-Solving Courts Working Group has been set up to advise on a new generation of pilot schemes, which while sounding progressive will be the vehicle through which the Government will look to implement the  controversial “ short, sharp spell in custody to change behaviour” they promised in their manifesto. While details are still being worked up about his Reform Prisons and plans for governor autonomy, Gove found himself telling the Justice Committee last month that a review of security categorisation in prisons is long overdue.

In David Laws book Coalition , David Cameron is quoted as telling Nick Clegg that “the thing that you've got to remember with Michael is that he is basically a bit of a Maoist - he believes that the world makes progress through a process of creative destruction!"' This may be a marked improvement on his predecessor (who lacked the creativity) but it still carries risks. While it is too early to make accusations of bad faith, the most serious are that the prison service is overwhelmed by crises before the reforms can be agreed let alone put into place; or that as with Mao’s hundred flowers campaign, liberalisation is abruptly followed by a crackdown.  

1 comment:

  1. Prison and Youth Custody, to some extent will all be impacted by what happens with probation.

    Home Secretary Theresa May told us months ago, that she and Gove want it to come under the auspices of the police and Criminal Justice Commissioners and that announcements will be made after the May elections.

    So we will need to wait at least a few more weeks until all the pieces of the jigsaw that are in play are even revealed - I am hoping there will be some sort of localised probation reunification and a return to a degree of local oversight, though possibly now the localities will be based on police rather then Magistrate's Court areas of operation.