Around the middle of this year, I wondered whether Michael Gove would reform prisons as he reformed schools. As the year teeters towards its end, it’s clear that he is – in a way. The Justice Secretary has set about his task in this Parliament with all the vigour and righteousness that, as Education Secretary, he demonstrated in the last. He’s made prison reform a defining part not just of his job but also of this Government.
So why only “in a way”? Because, in other respects, Gove’s prison reforms are the opposite of his school reforms. The latter involved commandeering the Academies programme that had been started under New Labour, and then taking it to hyperspeed. There were some detours from what had come before, particularly on exam standards, but the central course had been set by captains Blair and Adonis. It was continuity to the max.
Whereas the prison reforms are more about reversal than reprise. Just look at the front page headline on The Times the other day: “Thousands of prisoners to have jail terms cut: Overcrowding crisis forces new Gove revolution.” That’s not just a change from the Blair years, when hundreds of new, imprisonable offences were dreamt up, and the number of inmates ballooned accordingly. It’s a break from a Conservative orthodoxy that has persisted for decades. Tory ministers used to insist that “prison works”. Now they’re letting the prisoners out.
Although he’s too polite to admit it, many of Gove’s policies are also reversals of those introduced by his predecessor as Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling. Most recently, it was the criminal courts charge that he did away with. Before that, it was the £5.9 billion prison deal with Saudi Arabia. Before that, it was the restrictions on books. Before that, it was the “secure college” for housing teenage crims. Before that… well, that is already a lot of before-thats, and Gove has only been in the job for seven months. A large part of Grayling’s legacy has been dismantled in a short span of time.
I don’t say this to slander Grayling. As I’ve pointed out before, he isn’t the dismal authoritarian of caricature. His spell at the Justice Department brought about some compassionate reforms to the probation service, as well as slowing the growth in prisoner numbers. Besides, he supports Manchester United, which is always commendable.
But Gove lends an energy and an attitude to the role that Grayling never did. You can measure it by the press releases of penal reform charities such as the Howard League. For years, these were bitter missives, railing against the latest counterproductive measure imposed on inmates by the state. Nowadays, they’re almost celebratory – and why not? Gove is undoing policies that the Howard League fought against, and introducing ones that they fought for.
This is another difference from how Gove did schools reform: he’s bringing more people along with him this time. The reversal of the criminal courts charge was announced at a meeting of the Magistrates’ Association Council precisely because magistrates took it so hard in the first place. Some had previously resigned in protest at a policy that, they believed, skewed the justice system against the poorest. Now Gove is asking them to come back. He’s a friend rather than a foe.
Even so, there could still be conflict. Some of Gove’s policies, such as his plan to build nine more prisons, haven’t had such a happy reception. The whole superstructure of administrators, charities and other observers will likely find more to disagree with in future. As Jonathan Aitken said in yesterday’s edition of The Times (£), “There’s a ‘blob’ like in education – it’s not so much ideological as bureaucratic. I cheer Gove on, but it will be tougher than he thinks to turn this around.”
But it’s possible that the fiercest opposition will come from outside the justice system. Yesterday’s Times also included the headline “Give homesick prisoners iPads so they can stay in touch” (£). Who’s proposing this? A former head of the Prison Service, no less. And why? Not just so prisoners can stay in touch with their relatives, but – what the headline didn’t say – so they can stay in touch with their studies. It’s an idea with merit, but it’s a very difficult sell. Voters may baulk at iJustice at a time of austerity.
And iPads are the easy part. Some of Gove’s policies are a hostage to horrific acts. Any prisoner who is released early and goes on to commit a crime will become a counterargument by himself. The newspapers will reserve a special place for him on their front pages.
Which is why the example of the Right on Crime movement, from out of Texas, is so important. They’ve demonstrated, as I’ve written before, that there is a conservative case for reducing prison numbers – and Gove and the Government will have to make it if they want to keep the public, and, indeed, their own backbenchers, on side. It is not effective policy to turn criminals into worse criminals in oversized institutions. It is costly, incoherent and dangerous.
Forget the criminal court charge and the Saudi deal: if he pulls it off, this will be Gove’s greatest reversal of all. Reversing attitudes always was more difficult than reversing legislation.