THE BLOG

Looking for Cure and Regeneration

27/07/2015 17:33 BST | Updated 27/07/2016 10:59 BST

'Rehabilitation', 'Redemption', 'Rescue', 'Reformation', 'Love', 'Curative and Regenerating Virtues'. Words from some theological treatise or even a sermon, perhaps? No - words drawn from a couple ofrecent speeches by Michael Gove, the new secretary of state for justice.

Following on from his April piece in the Spectator, these words and the ideas they express seem to make very clear the wells from which Gove draws as he approaches his new responsibilities. He goes out of his way to acknowledge the contributions of people of faith and of faith organisations (and specifically Christian ones) within society in general and in the criminal justice world in particular. For a secretary of state to make explicit reference to chaplains in his first major speech about prisons is noteworthy. And not only that, but he also quotes directly from Matthew chapter 25 in underlining the importance of how we treat the vulnerable in our society, and prisoners in particular.

Indeed Gove's early public utterances and actions have drawn approval (even if at this stage tinged with caution) not only from within church and Christian circles but also more widely, including from some of the major penal affairs charities. The previous government's plan to create one large-scale 'secure college' for several hundred of the most challenging young offenders (a proposal some of us questioned vigorously in the House of Lords and elsewhere) has been scrapped. The importance of prisoners having access to books has been affirmed. And most recently, the secretary of state has spoken powerfully of the importance of education for rehabilitation, floating the idea of 'earned release' for those who engage with educational opportunities.

Gove has spoken directly about the hair-raising statistics concerning the appalling educational and other life experiences of many within our prisons. He has been willing to state his commitment to access to justice for all, regardless of means or influence; he has implicitly acknowledged some of the questions around the restriction of legal aid; he has not minced his words about the inefficiencies and anachronisms which clog up the courts. And I cannot but be positive when he says explicitly that "prison is a place where people are sent as a punishment, not for further punishments".

Whether deliberately or not, Gove has begun to share his thinking just as Nick Hardwick, the (sadly) outgoing Chief Inspector of Prisons, has published his most recent annual report. By and large it is not a happy read, and it makes crystal clear the size of the mountain which Gove and his colleagues must climb. And of course all those words with theological resonance - rehabilitation, restoration, rescue, redemption - have been used before. The words, however evocative and good, do not themselves bring change to the system or transform a single life. But the words are nonetheless welcome. They would seem to contain a clear declaration of intent from this Secretary of State.

Another interesting use of language is when Gove reminds prison Governors that those imprisoned are 'souls in their care'. This echo of the language of 'cure of souls' is further strengthened when, having introduced the concept of 'virtues', he speaks of inculcating virtues which are 'curative and regenerating'. This is very explicit Christian language, the language of healing and new birth. It implies, therefore, that offenders are as much in need of healing and renewal as they are of punishment. That is good to hear, and it is of course not soft - indeed it is vital not just for the individual offender, but also for the health of our whole society.

The jury is necessarily still out - the days are early and my caution remains. But I hear the words and I welcome them - and I rather hope that HM Treasury hears them too. The churches, Christian charities and countless Christian people already involved in many ways look forward to a healthy and robust engagement with Gove and his colleagues. As he knows well, we are already significantly involved and we continue to stand ready to play our part to the full. I hear the genuineness of his intent, and I hold him in my prayers.

The Rt Revd James Langstaff is the Bishop of Rochester and Bishop to Prisons