Thursday, 14 July 2016

Prisons should be tough, unpleasant and uncomfortable places: our new Justice Secretary's view of the world

Back in February, David Cameron set out why he believed prison reform should be a great progressive cause in British politics. It was certainly a top priority for his Justice Secretary Michael Gove, but in truth despite warm words and myriad reviews, virtually no progress was made before the careers of both men came to an end this week. What are the prospects of the reform agenda being pursued by the new management?

It’s unlikely that six years in the Home Office will have sharpened Mrs May’s appetite for a policy based on redemption and rehabilitation. But what of Elizabeth Truss, the woman May today appointed to succeed Mr Gove?

While she has been described as socially liberal, five years ago Truss co-authored a book called "After the Coalition: A Conservative Agenda for Britain". This argued  the need to "reverse the tide of soft justice", complaining that some judges have declined to jail criminals on human right grounds and that punishment in the justice system is too often a dirty word. Ms Truss and her colleagues were also “not ashamed to say that prisons should be tough, unpleasant and uncomfortable places”. They wanted persistent offenders sentenced for prolonged periods, praying in aid Howard League research on the ineffectiveness of short prison terms. They also proposed privatising all prisons.

So far, so discouraging. But differing policy views notwithstanding, one of the other authors of the book, Dominic Raab found himself able to work with Mr Gove over the last year, although not directly on prisons. Raab has recently been looking at sentencing reform, apparently more constructively than his 2011 views might suggest.

Let’s hope Ms Truss has had a similar change of heart and will not throw the Gove reforms into reverse before they have got out of first gear . There was perhaps likely to be a lot less to the reality of those reforms than was being promised. But at least the terms of the debate framed by the last government were positive ones. Conservative governments  have often swung between progressive and hard line responses to crime and offenders: Brittan v Hurd, Clarke v Howard, Grayling v Gove.  Where will Ms Truss fit?   

Thursday, 7 July 2016

Meanwhile in Other News.... What we Learned about Prison and Probation Reform this week

With energies consumed on political manoeuvrings, it must be hard for Cabinet ministers to focus on their day job. But while the Captain’s hands may be lightly attached to the departmental tiller, the ship of state sails on and so it was this week that we learned some interesting things from the crew who were hauled up before two Parliamentary committees.

On Monday, the Public Accounts Committee quizzed senior Ministry of Justice officials about the probation reforms. In a telling exchange, the Permanent Secretary Richard Heaton was asked how he thought the privately run Community Rehabilitation Companies were performing. His impression was that “this has not quite settled down and the story is probably mixed. It is not a part of the service that I am 100% confident about”. Why’s that, he was asked by Caroline Flint MP. “Just because I detect inconsistency, that’s all. I am not 100% confident about any of this; that is why it is such a difficult programme”. 60% confident? pressed Ms Flint. “Yes, all right, if you like”, Mr Heaton is recorded as admitting in the transcript.

To their credit, the Committee were holding their meeting at a prison; Hatfield in Ms Flint’s Don Valley constituency. Perhaps because they were away from Westminster, the MP’s went pretty easy on the officials, prepared to accept the NAO’s verdict that the programme was a success because the whole system did not "fall over". Mr Heaton looks like he was getting in his excuses for when it does.

The next day, the Justice Committee heard from three criminal justice inspectors and the Prison Ombudsman. With six so-called Reform prisons underway from 1st July, the Committee were understandably interested in how their progress would be measured. So it turned out were the Inspectors, who struggled to explain what governor autonomy  would mean, what the baseline is for measuring performance and what minimum standards were in place. Ombudsman Nigel Newcomen seemed concerned that under the current arrangements, prisons had accepted almost all of the recommendations in his reports about complaints and fatal incidents but often failed to implement resulting action plans.  Would the new Reform Prison be any more likely to do so he wondered?

More generally, the inspectorates do not seem to have been overly involved in developing what was an “evolving” policy although Prison Inspector Peter Clarke mentioned meetings with the Bill team. The previous day Mr Heaton had said he expected to be able to publish a White Paper “before the end of the year” so, wisely perhaps unlike the headlong rush into “Transforming Rehabilitation”, prison reform is progressing at a steadier pace. Who know whether it will match the speed of electronic monitoring: satellite tracking pilots were announced this week almost 12 years after they were first promised?  

Whether prison reform progresses at all will depend on the make-up of the new government. Peter Hennessey once described the Home Office as the graveyard of liberal thinking since the days of Lord Sidmouth. If its current incumbent, with Mr Grayling at her side, moves into no 10 , it will be no surprise if there is what is sometimes called a reverse ferret.