New Justice Secretary David Lidington has strong links with the past. For one thing, he gained a PhD by studying the enforcement of penal statutes in the 16th Century. More recently, he worked as a special adviser to Douglas Hurd in the Home Office from 1987, in the days when the Home Secretary was responsible for penal policy and for the prison and probation services which gave practical effect to it. Hurd is remembered as a liberal although preferred to describe himself as pragmatic. While Hurd paved the way for the 1991 Criminal Justice Act which sought to limit custody, it was his successor David Waddington whose White Paper included the famous (though surely flawed) axiom that imprisonment can be an expensive way of making bad people worse.
As Hurd’s SPAD, Lidington will have been familiar with many a prison crisis. Almost thirty years ago, Hurd had to tell the Commons that prison numbers had risen by 4000 in twelve months pushing the population more than 9,000 above its uncrowded capacity. With 600 prisoners in police cells, Hurd had to announce a range of short and long term measures to avert disaster; a series of disturbances the previous year prompted Hurd to tell MP’s "of the delicate balance between order and disorder in our prisons.”
I don’t know what if any part Lidington played in putting together the remedial plan which emerged. It included an accelerated building programme, the introduction of the private sector and the opening of an army camp. There was also action to reduce demand for prison places- a more generous regime of early release pending a wide ranging review of parole, remission and post release supervision to be undertaken by Mark Carlisle QC.
The package provided short term relief but three years on the Strangeways riot showed it to have been a sticking plaster at best.
As Lidington takes up the reins, he will want to avoid history repeating itself. He already has a building programme in place, so it’s demand rather than supply he needs to look at. While the prison population has been stable for the last seven years, prisons are still overcrowded. He and Hurd managed to get the numbers down from 51,000 to 45,000. Could Lidington achieve a 10% reduction and bring an end to overcrowding?
Back in 1987, one reason for the sharp rise in numbers was an increase in the average length of custodial sentences passed by the Crown court. Sentence lengths have risen recently too. One lever that’s now available is the Sentencing Council. Lidington should ask the Chair how he plans to reduce sentence inflation. He should also find some long grass into which to kick the manifesto plan to extend the unduly lenient sentence scheme.
More positively, Lidington should look seriously at the pledge to devolve criminal justice responsibilities to metro mayors and Police and Crime Commissioners. Building local incentives to reduce the need for imprisonment should be a long term aim. He will probably have to stick with (and invest into) the reformed probation landscape in the short term. But planning a stronger and more stable set of arrangements for the future should be an important priority.