Tuesday, 26 June 2018

Questions for the Minister

I don’t know if its still the case, but people appearing before Parliamentary Select Committees used to get a friendly phone call a few days in advance telling them the likely lines of questioning. Nothing is put in writing and nothing prevents MPs straying from the script. But what are Prison Minister Rory Stewart and his head honchos from the MoJ likely to get asked today?

The hearing is the first in the Committee’s Inquiry Prison Population 2022 : Planning for the Future, an important attempt to look at the current and expected use of prison in the next five years and the Government’s plans for managing it.  I’d expected the committee to start their inquiry by taking evidence from other witnesses – the Prison service, ex Prisoners, Unions and Professional bodies, academics and prison reform groups- so that the MPs could confront the MoJ with the findings at the end. Instead the MoJ are getting their retaliation in first.  Their questions are likely to relate to three main  topics

a) The size of the prison population.  There’s been a welcome fall in prison numbers to under 83,000 and while this partly results from increased use of early release on Home Detention Curfew, the much bigger driver has been a 25% reduction in people being sentenced since 2010.  Prisons should have seen a much greater dividend had it not been for a rising proportion of offenders being sentenced to prison and an increase in sentence lengths. MP’s will want to ask Stewart if he is content with this sentence inflation and the role the Sentencing Council has been playing. They will also want to ask what he and his boss David Gauke are doing to reduce the use of short prison sentences. This will inevitably raise questions about the Probation Reforms. MPs will want to know if there is truth in reports that contracts are being redrawn 2 years early; and what the MoJ makes of the Committee’s recommendation for a speedy review of the whole sorry TR mess.

b) The prison building programme. The MoJ has £1.3 billion to spend on new prisons and MPs will want an update on how this is being used and how many new prisons will actually be built and when. The original idea was 10,000 new places in nine new prisons but expect to hear that its been scaled back. MP’s should ask whether the MoJ aim to end overcrowding and by when. The prison system at the end of May was designed for 78,000 – with only 75,000 places available for use. Is the strategy to increase the supply of places or reduce demand for them?   Rightly, the Justice Committee has historically pressed for the latter solution and should continue to do so.

c) Prison Performance. Since Mr Stewart appeared before the committee in January’s hearing about HMP Liverpool, two prisons- Nottingham and Exeter have been subject to the Inspectorate’s Urgent Notification Procedure and others- Bedford and Winchester among them – placed in some sort of Special Measures. MP’s may want to know what the Special Measures status entails and how the need for additional specialist support is decided and funded. They may also wonder about some sort of early warning system about failing prisons. Stewart expressed gratitude to the chief inspector for identifying the urgent attention required at Exeter.  Don’t ministers and the prison service need to get ahead of the game themselves on prison conditions?

There are a few additional points that the Committee may be tempted to raise. Experience of the new units for extremist prisoners; the new Youth Justice minister’s links with SERCO; the slow pace of recruitment for a new Prison and Probation Ombudsman; early experience of the Parole Board’s summaries of hearings; plans for Secure Schools.  There  is also the matter of the long awaited Women's Strategy  and the action resulting from David Lammy's review on race and criminal justice- both issues which arguably deserve a specific hearing in due course. 

But today, while MPs may be tempted to roam widely, they’d be better off pressing on the core questions of population, building and performance.   

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