THE BLOG

Early Decisions Suggest the Government Isn't Prepared to Put Its Money Where Its Mouth Is on Prison Reform

11/11/2015 15:49 GMT | Updated 11/11/2016 10:12 GMT

Since he was appointed justice secretary in May, Michael Gove has been referred to as a "liberal hero" in the Guardian and the Independent and praised by prison reform charities. Not bad, you might think, for a Conservative Lord Chancellor.

Without a doubt the tone has changed on prison reform. While his predecessor, Chris Grayling, was famous for his "lock'em up and throw away the key" rhetoric and his antagonistic approach, Michael Gove has spoken about prisoners as potential assets and talked of rehabilitation as the main purpose of prison.

Many of the reforms outlined so far sound promising, perhaps because they are familiar - Labour has long said that prisons should be measured based on how successful they are at reforming prisoners, with the successful ones rewarded with greater flexibility; and increasing the amount of time prisoners spend learning and working was part of our manifesto going into the 2015 election.

Similarly, this week's announcement that the Government is to build nine new prisons and modernise the prison estate can only be welcomed.

There is, however, a distinct sense of déjà vu.

"Rehabilitation revolutions" were promised by Ken Clarke in 2010 and again by Chris Grayling in 2012. Yet it is still the case that almost half of adult offenders and over two-thirds of offenders under the age of 18 re-offend within a year of release. Behind every one of these figures is another victim of crime.

Modernising the prison estate was also a common refrain of the last Government but while 17 prisons, including high performing ones, have been closed since 2010, new prisons are yet to be built. This, unfortunately, has only resulted in adding pressure to an already over-crowded estate, with the Government recently forced to admit that it had for years underestimated the scale of overcrowding in our prisons.

Meanwhile, the needless splitting of the probation service - Chris Grayling's answer to the failure to rehabilitate offenders - is bound to have the opposite effect to that intended, with work being duplicated, staff workloads increasing and offenders falling through the cracks of a badly designed system.

Our prisons are in crisis and it is clear that something needs to be done. The latest report from the Chief Inspector of Prisons found outcomes in prisons at their worst level in ten years. Violence and self-harm are rife - over the last two years a prisoner has taken their own life every four days and in the 12 months to June 2015 there were 578 serious assaults on staff, a 42% increase on the previous year.

Michael Gove is making the right noises but fine words, as they say, butter no parsnips. In order to be successful many of Gove's ambitions will require upfront investment, not only to tackle the immediate problems - it is no use providing better educational courses if prisoners can't get there because there are not enough staff to safely unlock and escort them - but also to develop serious alternatives to custody - investing in buildings is one thing but it will not make much difference if you don't address what happens inside prisons and prevent people from getting there in the first place.

Unfortunately, barely two weeks from the spending review, early decisions suggest that the Government isn't quite prepared to put its money where its mouth is.

Last week, the Youth Justice Board announced that, under pressure from the Government to find in-year savings, it was cutting £9million from the grant it gives to youth offending teams. Incidentally, the £9million being taken away almost exactly matches the amount that the Government has just wasted on a failed procurement process to outsource the collection of fines - a clear case of ideology and misplaced priorities taking precedence over evidence-based policy making.

The Youth Justice Board and youth offending teams came about as a result of changes brought in by Labour when we were last in Government. Since then, and particularly over the last decade, this model of multi-agency diversion and early intervention has reduced both youth crime and the numbers of young people in prison. The number of first time entrants to the youth justice system has fallen by 75 per cent over the past decade while the number of proven offences associated with young people has reduced by 68 per cent. With the average cost of a place in youth custody estimated to be £100,000 a year, the benefits to the Treasury are clear.

Earlier this year the Chief Executive of the YJB, Lin Hinnigan, was reported to have warned the Government that cuts could lead to a rise in youth offending - a reverse of the trend brought about by Labour's reforms - and to rising costs for police, the courts, and other agencies who deal with offenders. When the announcement was made, she said that she recognised that the cuts would be "particularly difficult for the YOTs locally to manage" and "will ultimately impact on outcomes for some of the most vulnerable children in our society".

Add to this the cuts to policing and reforms to the probation service and this could create the perfect storm leading to more crime, more re-offending and higher prison numbers - the opposite of what the Government claims to want.

The success of Labour's youth justice reforms shows that targeting specific groups and tailoring our approach to offenders' circumstances works.

If the Government were serious about reducing re-offending, it would be looking at ways to build on that success, for example by emulating the same locally focused, multi-agency systems for 18-20 year old offenders or setting up a Women's Justice Board to tackle female offending.

And beyond the physical buildings, Ministers should be focusing on what makes a good prison. Great education and a focus on rehabilitation, absolutely, but also strong leadership with governors incentivised to stay on for longer, a professional, motivated workforce not under constant threat of violence, local partnerships with prisons rooted in local communities and proper accountability with a boosted inspection regime independent from Government.

George Osborne and Michael Gove have shown that they are not averse to adopting Labour's policies where it suits their image as one nation conservatives. We are more than prepared to work cross-party to achieve change, if that is their genuine intent. But as is too often true with this Government, this seems another case of rhetoric not being reflected in reality.

Jenny Chapman is Labour's Shadow Prisons, Probation and Victims Minister