Alex Burghart

Alex Burghart is Director of Policy at the Centre for Social Justice.

Michael Gove has just given one of the more powerful speeches of the post-election period. (One seasoned, non-partisan veteran told me afterwards that he hadn’t heard a speech like it since Jack Straw became Home Secretary in 1997.) Speaking at the Prisoners Learning Alliance on education in prisons, the Lord Chancellor, only two months in post at the Ministry of Justice, was already in full ‘warriors for the dispossessed’ mode, invoking Churchill (twice) and the Gospel according to St Matthew in the name of social justice and reform.

Although this was his first major speech on prisons since he took on the MoJ brief, it was vintage Gove, erecting the moral framework on which his policies will be hung. That emerging edifice stands on a belief in redemption, in the ability of people to change and better themselves, and in society’s – and Government’s – duty to assist such transformation. Today the focus was prisons and although he didn’t actually re-use the phrase, what Gove was really saying was that prisons, like schools, should be ‘engines of social mobility’. Not places like HMP Pentonville where, recently, the Chief Inspector found ‘blood-stained walls, piles of rubbish and food waste, increasing levels of violence, an absence of purposeful activity and widespread drug-taking’.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given Gove’s previous employment, his starting point for this shift is education. Fully three-fifths of prisons supply substandard education to their prisoners – prisoners who are, in very large part, woefully ill-educated. Half have no qualifications at all. About half (presumably the same half) are functionally illiterate. Without such basic skills and with an experience of crime it is easy to see why we still have such a whackingly high recidivism rate (around 45 per cent).

As Gove’s moral outlook knows by instinct, where there is a pathway into poverty, there is also a pathway out. Just as educational failure plays a role in people ending up in prison, so education can do its bit to help keep prisoners out. So the push by the Secretary of State to offer decent education and training, to have the expectation that prisoners will take it, and to offer the possibility of earned early release should they do so are excellent goals. (As is the floated idea to sell off Victorian prisons). The delivery mechanism for these reforms (again, perhaps unsurprisingly) looks to clone the academy model – giving governors autonomy and driving improvements through accountability.

The levers of rehabilitation are now at Michael Gove’s disposal. The levers of prevention are not. Since Oliver Letwin wrote of a ‘conveyer belt to crime’, modern Tory social reformers have understood something of the route to prison. Family breakdown, a violent home, living in an environment where crime is a normalised activity, abuse and addiction – none of these make prison an inevitability, but each of them make it harder to avoid. The depressingly well-rehearsed data say it all: a quarter of prisoners were taken into care as children, two-fifths witnessed domestic violence, 60 per cent regularly played truant.

This is why it is essential that the Government should retain and build on the momentum of its social reforms. The Troubled Families Programme, academies, the pupil premium, the welfare revolution and adoption reforms all have huge potential to reduce the long-term need for prison. But we also need a far more effective ways of dealing with drug and alcohol addiction, with domestic abuse, and with helping people improve their mental health. In doing such things the Government will plant trees in whose shade it may not sit, but whose protection will be enjoyed by many generations to come.

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