A new government means a review of planned policies in each department – to make sure they fit with what new ministers want, but also to make sure they are coherent with the new vision emanating from Downing Street.
That process is underway at the moment, and we’re starting to see some of its fruits. Osborne’s plans for an emergency budget in the case of a Leave vote were the obvious first casualty, and they have now been followed by his policy of privatising the Land Registry. New items like tougher punishments for dangerous driving are making their way onto the agenda.
One Bill in the Queen’s Speech that is currently in doubt is Michael Gove’s Prisons Bill. Here’s how Her Majesty described it back in May:
“My government will legislate to reform prisons and courts to give individuals a second chance.
Prison Governors will be given unprecedented freedom and they will be able to ensure prisoners receive better education. Old and inefficient prisons will be closed and new institutions built where prisoners can be put more effectively to work.
Action will also be taken to ensure better mental health provision for individuals in the criminal justice system.”
It was billed as “the largest [prison] reform programme since Victorian times”, and was one of the few really meaningful items in a sparse agenda. From ConservativeHome’s perspective, it was a welcome proposal – we had called for a Social Justice Queen’s Speech, and I’ve argued on this site in the past that reforming prisons to improve the dire rehabilitation rate ought to be a moral mission for Conservatives just as strong as that to improve education.
Our optimism was seasoned with a little caution, though, noting that “were Michael Gove not in place, with his new ideas about reform, it is hard to believe [the Bill] would be in place.” Now Gove has gone, and it seems that the programme of reform which he planned to implement is now in doubt. Asked about it by the Justice select committee yesterday, Liz Truss would say only:
“We are looking at that at the moment. I am not committing to any specific piece of legislation at this stage.”
“The key thing is that it has to be deliverable and we have to do things in the right order.”
The Times reports that the Ministry of Justice later clarified that “The government remains totally committed to legislating on prison reform and will come forward with plans in due course.” But it couldn’t be more clear that the plan to present the detail of “the largest reform programme since Victorian times” this autumn is now in trouble.
There could be any number of reasons for that. If Justice civil servants are anything like their colleagues in Education, some will have deeply disliked Gove’s tendency to take reform far, fast. Perhaps Truss herself isn’t so keen on her predecessor’s thinking, or she wants the chance to put her own stamp on the policy rather than simply end up implementing his ideas. It’s not impossible that Downing Street fears that anything which might run a risk of appearing “soft” on criminals would send the wrong message to the voters they are trying hard to impress.
Any or indeed all of these might be understandable, but it would be a serious error to overly dilute prison reform, or to kick it into the long grass – not least because it is the only sustainable route to reducing prisoner numbers without letting criminals off.
It might not be as appealing politically as education reform, involving as it does convicted criminals, but its justification and outcome are similar. A bad school ruins lives, destroys potential, harms wider society and costs taxpayers’ money through the knock-on effects of unemployment and other social ills. A bad prison fails to rescue lives which are already in crisis, subjects new victims to the crimes of those who reoffend after release and costs taxpayers’ money through the continuation of a crime wave it was meant to stop.
The radical ideas required to put our prison system on the right track – replacing unsuitable old buildings with modern facilities, allowing governors the leeway to experiment with new policies and paying rehabilitation charities and others by results – are open to critical headlines. But such a temporary discomfort can and should be borne if the result is a fall in reoffending, less crime, fewer victims and a smaller bill for the taxpayer. We should not fall into the trap of thinking that prisons either rehabilitate or punish – we must insist that a functioning and tough prison system should do both.
Truss doesn’t have to bring forward a carbon copy of whatever Gove was planning. She’s the Justice Secretary now, it’s her department and she must do as she sees fit on her own terms. But she must not allow the very idea of radically reforming our prisons to falter or die. That would be a missed opportunity, and the only result would be an increase in human misery.