When Theresa May called the general election in April, the Government's flagship Prisons and Courts bill met its end. The then Justice Secretary, Liz Truss, had heralded her plans as the biggest overhaul of prisons in a generation. Conservative cuts have created a crisis in our prisons - violence is spiralling and prisons are overcrowded and awash with drugs. The Conservatives' decision to hold a General Election for (attempted) narrow Party political gain meant that for nearly two months the prisons crisis was left unchecked. Accepted wisdom said that the Queen's Speech on Wednesday would announce that the Bill would be reintroduced in its entirety. Yet when David Lidington, in his role as Lord Chancellor, stepped forward to hand the Queen the speech the Government had written, all his finery and fancy dress could not disguise the complete absence of any measures aimed to tackle the prison crisis.
Within minutes of the speech concluding, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, Peter Clarke issued a statement criticising the Government's inaction. He said: "This is a missed opportunity to forge ahead with prison reform. The law would have required the government to respond to our findings. We will continue to report the harsh reality of what we find in our prisons - all too many of which are dangerous for prisoners and staff alike and are failing in their duty to rehabilitate and reform prisoners". This is a huge embarrassment for the Government. I met with Mr Clarke after the Bill was published and he is serious and committed to doing his bit to sort out the crisis. If only the Government was as determined.
His words take on an extra resonance given in the last two weeks his inspectorate published damning reports on the state of Lincoln, Brixton and Pentonville prisons. In my view, the assessment of Brixton prison in particular encapsulates everything that is wrong in our prisons. The inspectors found rising violence, drugs freely available, understaffing and overcrowding. And this week a joint report by the prison and probation inspectorate found that the support being given to newly released prisoners may as well not exist for all the good it is doing.
In response to Peter Clarke's criticism, the Ministry of Justice quickly rushed out an 'open letter' on behalf of Justice Secretary David Lidington. In it, he set out measures the Government has already taken to try and fix this mess of its own making. But none of it is new and many believe it's not making a difference. Prison officers are demoralised and the Ministry's attempts to recruit and retain more of them isn't working. So something needs to be urgently done to improve their conditions and their pay. Prison Officers I meet are keen for more responsibility and are eager to take a greater role in rehabilitation. Labour in government will end the public sector pay gap. Liz Truss was keener on taking prison officers to court than listening to their concerns. David Lidington needs to urgently reset that damaging approach.
Peter Clarke is right: this is a missed opportunity. The Conservative cuts agenda has caused this crisis. Today there are over 6,000 fewer prison officers than there were in 2010. That's a cut of a third. We need some admission from Lidington that he understands the roots of his Government's prisons crisis. Cuts have consequences. At present, we have no reason to believe that Lidington grasps the scale of the challenge or has any plans at all to turn things around. But perhaps that is the most revealing part of this Queen's Speech: we have a Prime Minister who has lost her majority and her authority, attempting to lead a Government with no plan. The Conservatives have run out of ideas across the piste - and prisons is no exception. Labour is a Government in waiting - ready to lead and to take decisive action to end the prisons crisis.
Richard Burgon is the shadow justice secretary and Labour MP for Leeds EastSuggest a correction