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.